The Wings of Old
Fly Once More From Chiangmai
The very early 19th century was an age of "daring do" and aviation pioneering. Everyone who could wanted to get into the air and those who couldn't fly were in awe of those "Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines". It was expensive, it was exceedingly dangerous but, most of all, it was challenging fun! Flying mania came to Siam (as Thailand was then known) in 1911 with the arrival of Belgian aviator, Charles van der Born, and a flying display was given in the skies over Bangkok. Perhaps watching that early air display was a teenage boy Khun Luen Pongsobhon who was to become the first Thai (indeed Asian) pilot to take up the challenge of long-distance solo flying.
Born to a Thai aristocratic family on 8 May 1897, young Khun Luen grew up with a deep desire to join the army. When he was of age, he was admitted to the Royal Thai Military Academy but Khun Luen had not yet become an officer-graduate when Siam decided to send a contingent of Thai troops to join the Allies in the First World War. Impatient to see action, Khun Luen resigned from the Academy and joined the Thai Army Group, as an NCO, when they went off to see service in France. After the allied victory, Khun Luen went to Paris to study mechanical engineering since he was the first scholarship winner and subsequently returned to the Royal Thai Military Academy as an instructor. This was not nearly an exciting enough life so, at 23 years of age, Khun Luen was afforded a scholarship (personally by King Rama VII) to study aviation engineering at Parks Air College, (present-day Saint Louis University) St. Louis, USA.
It was here that he also learned to fly and he took to it as a second nature. After graduating and obtaining all the necessary licenses, in 1923 Khun Luen joined a Flying Circus and barnstormed his way around more that 30 States. Air shows and aerobatics were all in a day's fun. But Khun Luen was also a prudent young man; most of what he earned was saved and eventually he bought a brand-new Travel Air 2000 aeroplane at the cost of 6,000 Baht. (The exchange rate during late 1920's could be $ 100,000 for that amount of Baht who knows?)
The Travel Air 2000 was an open-cockpit biplane, powered by a 90 HP Curtiss OX-5 engine, which offered good visibility and had the maneuverability for aerobatics. Khun Luen named her Miss Siam and the aircraft travelled with him when he returned to Thailand in 1931. Thus Miss Siam became the first privately owned aircraft in Thailand.
In 1932, Khun Luen, supported by colleagues and friends, decided he would fly Miss Siam to Hong Kong and China. It would be a big adventure and a first but Khun Luen was confident he could do it (a Thai Army effort to fly long haul to India had already failed). Official permission was needed for the attempt but, thanks to bureaucratic slowness and muddling, approval did not come through until June (six months after making the request) which was the beginning of the rainy season. Undeterred, Khun Luen didn't wait for anyone to change his mind!
The planned route for Miss Siam was from Bangkok to Hong Kong via Korat, Nakhon Phanom, Vinh & Hanoi (Vietnam), Mong Cai & Hainan Island (China) and Macau but it didn't quite go like that! On 19th July 1932, Khun Luen (carrying his personal effects in a small bag) and Miss Siam (with spare parts, spark plugs and extra oil stowed where possible) flew off from Don Muang Military Aerodrome his wife, mother and friends waving farewell.
When Khun Luen and Miss Siam eventually arrived in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post headlined "Siamese Airman Arrives. A Splendid Feat" but it hadn't been easy. Khun Luen faced squally rains before climbing over the Annan Highlands (a 3-day delay), low mists (which sometimes forced him to fly at almost treetop level) and diversions when he couldn't reach where he wanted to reach. At one point he landed in a sea-marsh (which looked like solid beach sand) and was soon surrounded by locals and Chinese soldiers.
The soldiers were particularly edgy (Japan had invaded Manchuria and attacked Shanghai) as they thought the Thai characters, on Miss Siam's fuselage, looked Japanese. However, the delicate situation eased and a crowd of peasants and coolies helped Miss Siam out of the mire. Water had entered the cockpit and engine crankcase level. Khun Luen had to complete an oil and spark plug change before roaring off again. Over the Pearl River delta Miss Siam was shelled by a Chinese warship ('though Khun Luen, modestly, didn't think he was the target). On the upside, Khun Luen received warm reception from French military authorities in Vietnam plus civil and military leaders in Macau and Hong Kong. It had been a courageous effort, in often dangerous and trying conditions, and so Khun Luen Pongso-bhon's flight was recognized by European colonial figures.
Sadly, there had been a coup d'etat in Thailand during his absence and when Khun Luen and Miss Siam returned to Don Muang Military Aerodrome, it was not to the tumultuous welcome he'd been expecting. Waiting to greet him was his family and some friends -- almost the same few people who had seen him off! It wasn't until Khun Luen reached Bangkok's Hualamphong Railway Station that the rapturous, welcoming crowds greeted him. They had been barred from the welcome at Don Muang Aerodrome!
His dream was fullfilled shortly after Khun Luen completed his historic flight, he dismantled Miss Siam and kept her in his garage until his death in 1976. Never accorded much recognition in his native Thailand, Khun Luen Pongso-bhon was, nevertheless, one of the early aviation pioneers. He was honored and given with the rank of Group Captain by the government in the later years.
Prior to his historic flight, he was out of job for a year since the Siamese Airways Co.,Ltd. hesitated to employ him. After he made the pioneering flight to China, then he was able to join the Siamese Airways. During those years with the airline, he slowly became interested in politics. From 1937 till 1957, he was elected six times as MP of Korat and was Deputy Minister of Industry Ministry 2 times. Whenever he had free time Mr. Luen Pongsobhon used his ingenuity to economically produce western inventions in Siam because he was a certified mechanical engineer circus entertainment (motocycle-on-wall-of-deat, ferris wheel, aeroplane carousel, minitrain, bumper car, go-kart, etc.) tricycle, tractor, long-tail boat, rubber tyre for tricycle and automobile, movie production, etc.
Today, Miss Siam has taken to the air once more. Thanks to splendid work done by The Foundation for Preservation and Development of Thai Aircraft (Royal Patron H.M. King Bhumibol) the "old girl" has a complete new set of wings and fuselage. Her old, original power unit -- the Curtiss OX-5 has been totally restored and functions even better than when first operational. Recently (end July, early August 2003 Chiang Mai's Royal Thai Airforce Wing 41 (adjoining the International Airport) supervised Miss Siam's six hour test flight around the city. It was technically and patriotically a great success! There will be a road show of domestic flight of Miss Siam, 23-29 September 2003, via Bangkok-Korat-Khon Kaen-Nakorn Panom -Ubol Rajathanee-Korat-Bangkok. Other old planes will participate in this matter. Who knows, perhaps June 2004 one of Thailand's modern young aviators will guide Miss Siam along the flight path she took 72 years ago. Chok Dee (Good Luck) for such a journey Miss Siam will again have the wind beneath her wings and, somewhere, Khun Luen Pongsobhon will smile.