Khmer Air Force History
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Khmer Air Force

Air Force History 1970-1975

After General Lon Nol seized power on March 18, 1970, US and South Vietnamese aid began anew. Just two days after the coup d'etat, on March 20, about 20 A-1 Skyraiders of the VNAF were temporarily deployed to Pochentong. Between 1970 and 1975, VNAF aircraft were deployed to Pochentong as well as other airfields in Cambodia on a regular basis. In support of the new regime, US forces launched a large scale assault on April 24 on NVA and Khmer Rouge forces in eastern Cambodia. By June 29, US forces had been withdrawn.

By mid-June, a report on the status of the AVRK was prepared by the US air attache in Phnom Penh. The sole combat unit, the First Intervention Group, consisted of 13 MiG-17s, four Fouga Magisters and six T-28 Trojans. None of the Skyraiders were operational. The transport fleet of 16 C-47s, one Il-14 Crate and two U-6 Beavers were only 50 % operational. One of four T-37B Tweetys was airworthy, but nothing is known about the remaining training aircraft, such as the Gardan GY-80 Horizons.

Apart from having a low operational capability, the AVRK also lacked spares and all kinds of munitions. As a result, the MiG-17s were modified to carry US made 20 mm guns, as well as Mk 82 and FAB-250 bombs. During 1970, the number of sorties flown by the 1st Intervention Group increased significantly. Between March and October, the T-28s flew a total of 2,016 sorties, while the MiGs accounted for 360 sorties. F-86F Sabres and AC-47D gunships of the Royal Thai Air Force supported the Khmer government forces as well.

On January 21, 1971, the AVRK was virtually annihilated during an NVA sapper attack on Pochentong. The majority of the AVRK inventory, including T-28s, MiG-17s, O-1s etc, was destroyed, as well as three O-1 Bird Dogs of the VNAF. The only AVRK combat aircraft to escape destruction were six T-28 Trojans that were temporarily deployed to Battambang. Apart from the losses of aircraft, 39 officers and enlisted men were killed and another 170 injured. This disaster was of such immense proportions, that it was later seen as one of the main reasons for the downfall of the Lon Nol regime. Pochentong was closed for almost a week while the damage was assesed and initiated. The runway had to be repaired, and the stocks of fuel and munitions replenished. New aircraft started to arrive soon afterwards from the USAF under Project Flycatcher. In total, 82 aircraft, including T-28s, O-1s, T-41Ds, AC-47Ds and C-47s were delivered. A few C-47 transports were supplied from Australia as well.

On December 15, 1971, the AVRK was redesignated as the Khmer Air Force, becoming a fully independent service. Although the KhAF were receiving more aircraft, losses remained high. This was due to a lack of training, as well as increasing combat losses. By August 1972, 14 T-28s had been lost, eight of which had crashed due to pilot error. During the first half of 1972, four T-41D trainers were lost in separate incidents, all pilots being killed. On March 17, 1973, a disgruntled KhAF pilot, Capt So Patra, attacked the Presidential Palace. A total of 43 were killed and another 35 injured in the attack.

On August 15, 1973, a ceasefire came into effect in Cambodia. Although US air support ended on that date, the KhAF was reinforced prior to the ceasefire with the delivery of 12 T-28Ds, six UH-1Hs and five C-123K Providers. With the Khmer Rouge guerrillas controlling large parts of the countryside, the Khmer armed forces were fighting an up-hill battle. On November 19, 1973, the Presidential Palace was struck yet again by a KhAF pilot, Lt Lim Khun. As a result of this second attack, President Lon Nol purged the KhAF of what was considered to be illoyal elements.

By January 1974, up to 40 daily T-28 sorties were flown. Through the year, the number of sorties increased dramatically with up to 120 daily T-28 sorties in September. However, in October, the US supply of munitions was drastically decreased. After this reduction of supplies, the KhAF were only able to mount a maximum of 49 T-28, six AC-47 and ten UH-1H gunship daily sorties, even though much more was deemed necessary to contain the Khmer Rouge.

Even though US support continued, albeit on a limited basis, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the days of Lon Nol were numbered. An airlift by civilian airlines, including Bird Air and Flying Tigers, brought in vital supplies to the beleaguered cities. US military aircraft could not be used, due to the 1973 Peace Treaty. Instead, the USAF bailed a number of C-130s to Bird Air in order to increase the number of aircraft available for the airlift. The airlift was finally suspended on April 11. Amazingly, no aircraft had been lost, although nine Cambodians were killed when Pochentong was shelled by the Khmer Rouge. On April 12, Operation Eagle Pull, the evacuation of US citizens and third national was initiated.

The last KhAF sortie was flown on April 16, after the Khmer Rouge had captured the control centre at Pochentong. The control centre was bomber by T-28s, which then were flown to safe haven in Thailand. In the final exodus of the Khmer Air Force, 97 aircraft, consisting of 50 T-28s, 13 UH-1Hs, 12 O-1s, 10 C-123Ks, seven AC-47Ds, three AU-24As, one C-47 and one T-41D were flown to Thailand. As the aircraft had been supplied to the KhAF under various aid programmes, they were returned to formal US ownership, and redistributed to other air arms in the region, including the Philippines and Thailand. Others were returned to the USA, or scrapped. For the Cambodian people, the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge was about to unfold.

Jan Forsgren

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