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Air Force of the Khmer Liberation Army
Air Force History 1975-1979
When the Khmer Rouge seized power on April 17, 1975, they captured an estimated 100 Khmer Air Force aircraft. A few of these, including two T-28s at battambang, were intentionally destroyed, while still others were left to rot. The Khmer Rouge based its revolution on an agrarian peasant basis, renouncing urban life in general and technology in particular. As a result, aviation received scant attention by the Khmer Rouge. Indeed, refugees mentioned that the skies seemed empty, reinforcing the notion that Kampuchea had been abandoned by the outside world.
The aircraft captured by the Khmer Rouge were further depleted on May 15, 1975, when US Navy A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsair IIs attacked Ream air base, destroying five out of 12 T-28 Trojans. The attacks occured in conjunction with the Mayaguez rescue operation by US forces.
During mid-1975, the first military equipment was received by China. Chinese military advisors also arrived in Kampuchea, as Cambodia had been renamed. Among these were some 320 air force advisors. One of the projects initiated by the Chinese was primary flight training at Pochentong. UH-1Hs were used for helicopter training. The sole trained pilot of Khmer origin, Pech Lim Kuon, defected to Thailand on April 30, 1976 in a UH-1H. He had been one of ten pilots, five Kampuchean and five CHinese, who were receiving flight training. Other aircraft, including C-47s and possibly T-41Ds were overhauled at Pochentong and Battambang. Refugees spoke of what was thought to be North Koreans at Battambang, attempting to restore to airworthiness as many aircraft as possible.
The foundations of an air arm, the Air Force of the Kampuchean Liberation Army, AFKLA, was created. Nothing is known of its origins and infrastructure. The mainstay of the AFKLA seems to have been Douglas C-47 transports and UH-1H helicopters. Apart from flight training, the majority of sorties flown were apparently transport and propaganda, "PsyWar" ones. Intriguingly, four T-28s were featured in a Chinese propaganda film, shot at Pochentong during 1977, taking off on a seemingly operational sortie.
In 1977, the AFKLA received an infusion of new aircraft from China in the shape of Shenyang F-6C fighters and Harbin H-5 bombers. At least six, and possibly as many as 16 F-6Cs were received, while at least two, and possibly three, H-5s were delivered. A new air base at Kompong Chhnang was constructed by the Chinese advisors.
During their reign, the Khmer Rouge conducted numerous border incursions against both Thailand and Vietnam. On one occasion, on February 25, 1976, VPAF MiG-21s based at Pakse in Laos bombed Siem Reap in northwestern Kampuchea in retaliation for such attacks. As a response to further border incursions, Vietnam invaded Kampuchea on December 25, 1978. At the time of the invasion, it was estimated that the AFKLA consisted of 16 F-6Cs, 17 T-28s, 10 UH-1Hs, eight C-47s, three C-123Ks and about ten O-1s, T-41Ds and AU-24As. It is not known to which extent the AFKLA was used, although a H-5 reportedly flown by a North Korean crew was claimed as shot down.
On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese forces reached Phnom Penh, forcing the Kampuchean leader Pol Pol to flee. Depending on the source, Pol Pol and his aides used either two or five UH-1Hs in their escape. After reaching Thailand, the UH-1Hs were disabled by their crews, after which the remnants of the Khmer Rouge slipped into the jungle.
Among the AFKLA aircraft captured by the Vietnamese were six F-6C fighters at Kompong Chhnang, ten A-37s, three C-123Ks, six C-47s, three Alouette IIIs as well as a few T-28s. Most of the captured aircraft were carried off to Vietnam, and incorporated into the VPAF. Interestingly, during the invasion, the VPAF had employed the same tactics that had been used by the USAF during the Vietnam War. Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs or Antonov An-2 Colts operated as FAC aircraft, with Cessna A-37Bs, Northrop F-5s and MiG-21s being utilized as strike aircraft.
Despite being able to oust the Khmer Rouge from power, large units of Khmer Rouge guerrillas continued to roam and terrorize the countryside. The fighting in Kampuchea would continue for the remainder of the decade.