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Thai Time to Fly
Daron Cristy, Contributing Writer & Photographer

Thailand offers some amazing cultural experiences, history, scuba diving, food and even the notorious Bangla Road, but as a pilot I needed to find out if I could fly during my visit there. What an amazing way to remember my first visit to Thailand and an epic entry in my logbook. After all, my Great Lakes biplane has a Thai name ... Mia Noi.

It is an important point to note that on 22 May 2014, Major Prayut Chan-o-cha led the Royal Thai Armed Forces in a military coup d'état. This was a quiet coup where no blood was spilt and that aimed at removing the government, not the royal family. The military has since maintained a heavy presence in the government, and this means that Thai airspace is essentially military.

Thailand has tried to demonstrate that they are promoting general aviation, but this has been a very slow process, and even after many years, it is still very much in its infancy. Only 1,500 pilot licenses have been issued in 30 years, and of the 200 small aircraft registered in Thailand, perhaps only 100 are in flying condition. Compare that to the United States where there are over 600,000 active certified pilots (80% of whom are general aviation pilots), and 220,000 registered civil aircraft (90% of which are general aviation). Thailand has a lot of catching up to do.

Phuket Airpark is a private, grass, single-strip airpark with a 500 meter (1,640 feet) runway with a 50 meter (164 feet) over-run at both ends and is at an elevation of 20 feet above sea level.

Thailand does offer very structured and specific training schools for ATP pilots, even training airline transportation pilots for Malaysia and Japan.

Aviation in Thailand complies with ICAO. It is governed by CAAT, the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand - similar in essence to the FAA in the United States.

As with any airspace, there are some rules (please reference or the CAAT office in Bangkok), but there are also a lot of grey areas. Thailand is not a country known for its hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes things are accepted because up until that point everything has worked without issue, whether or not it is legal.

  • Only a Thai person or Thai company can own and operate an airplane in Thailand.
  • You need a Thai pilot license or have your license endorsed by CAAT.
  • You need permission to use a private aircraft operating license which renews every five years. This is specific; thus, one is required for each and every aircraft.
  • An airplane needs a certification of airworthiness and registration.
  • The primary language for communication with ATC is English. However, you may (will) hear Thai.
Runways are 13 and 31, with the pattern frequency being 122.3

Most flying clubs will allow you to fly so long as you use their safety pilot. Flying solo takes a lot more paperwork for a non-national licensed pilot, and one of the requirements is a letter of recommendation from a Thai resident licensed pilot. Then you will need to either bring along your own aircraft or find someone willing to let you fly theirs!

Visual flight rules apply up to FL200. There are no official up-to-date VFR charts available for Thai airspace. Foreflight does not have VFR coverage for Thailand, but IFR charts are available through their association with Jeppesen. The most used VFR charts were the Tactical Pilotage Charts from the US military which were revised in 1983. The most recently updated (unofficial) charts were put together after many hours of research by Thomas Baumgartner who is, at the time of this article, flying an ambulance jet out of Bangkok.

A flight plan has to be filed for every flight, and the pilot needs to be in constant contact with ATC. Airspace is essentially split into three area types: above 6,500, below 6,500 and major airport airspace (there are 23 commercial airports). Operations above 6,500 can be coordinated through the central ATC in Bangkok. Below 6,500 you need to coordinate with the nearest major airport whilst you are in their airspace, or outside of that airspace you coordinate with a regional ATC.

The airpark does have an issue with the approach to runway 13. It has a sizeable hillside, and more recently, above-ground power lines have been installed right at the threshold, which certainly keeps you on your toes. Therefore runway 31 is the more appealing runway for both departures and landings.

Surprisingly, import tax is just 7% of the airplane's value, which is a lot less than I had anticipated - the cost of importing cars and motorcycles can have a duty of up to 300% of the value of the vehicle. As a bonus, if you only intend to operate the aircraft for a short period, this amount can be refunded to you once the airplane is exported out of Thailand. But be prepared for plenty of paperwork and bureaucracy, whichever way you do it!

With all this taken into consideration, I was still determined to get that flight in my logbook!

Patong Beach on Phuket Island being the destination, there were only two possible options, Phuket International Airport (IATA: HKT, ICAO:VTSP) and Phuket Airpark (ICAO:VTSW), both in the Thalang District. Obviously, the international airport was for commercial operations and, like most major airports, is not very receptive to general aviation. Even private jets have a four-hour maximum stay!

Contacting Suchard Raksangob, the owner of the airpark, I was greeted with the warm hospitality that Thailand is renowned for. He invited me to visit so we could arrange the flight. Hopping on a rental scooter, I rode the forty minutes to the airpark. On more than one occasion I saw my life flash before my eyes. It takes nerves of steel to weave your way along the streets of Phuket on a 125cc pocket rocket.

Another consideration is fuel. If 100LL is required, it has to be special ordered and comes by the barrel. The Flight Design CTLS that I would be using for the flight utilizes the Rotax engine and is able to operate on high-octane automotive gasoline.

Weather conditions were good, a little hazy, partially cloudy, with very slight winds as I flew the Flight Design CTLS experimental out of Phuket Airpark with the owner, Suchard, as my safety pilot. We would hit some more clouds and a little rain during the flight, but that did not ruin the experience at all.

We flew over so many beautiful islands and beaches, including the world-famous James Bond Island (Khao Phing Kan) which is actually located off the shores of Phang Nga. I also did get to visit the island on the ground along with the up to 2,000 visitors a day that go there, but very few get to view it from the air like I did.

Flying over all of the wonderful beaches and islands, it dawned on me what an opportunity it would be for a float plane. That is, until it was explained to me that when you file a flight plan, it cannot end with a water landing. That would explain why the two sets of floats are hung from the roof at the airpark. A company called Destination Air used to operate a sea plane service to and from Patong Bay, but the Governor of Phuket ordered that to be suspended in 2008 after issues were raised in regard to safety, noise pollution and the environment. That service was never resumed.

The strangest thing about this flight - how quiet the radio was. Being used to flying San Diego's congested airspace with almost constant radio chatter, it was almost disconcerting to fly when you really are the only small plane in the sky. The only times we had radio communication were reporting way points and the need to coordinate flying over Phuket International Airport.

Flying south along the west coast of Phuket Island we passed Patong Beach, flew around Big Buddha, continued along the coast, turning north back past Rawai and on to the airpark.

It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime flight.

The general aviation community in Thailand is a small, close-knit group. I met a variety of people: Jake from England who now lives there and is in the first stages of learning to fly; Bo Roennow (the Crazy Dane), who has had some amazing adventures in his GA planes (enough to write a book, I Have a Dream); and Evgeny Savelyev, a retired Russian MiG pilot who lives part time in Malaysia and the rest in Thailand. Pragu Sappipatana from the Friends Flying Club flew down with friends from Bangkok for the Chinese New Year. A wonderfully diverse group of people could be found at Phuket Airpark, all of whom shared some very basic characteristics; everyone was so friendly and welcoming as well as having that passion for flying.

As of writing this article the Phuket Airpark is for sale. Hopefully the new owner will continue Suchard's vision to develop the site into an amazing live-in airpark.

Thank you, Suchard and Amy, for your hospitality.

By Daron Cristy -
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