Winging It

The first airplane built by Paen Long, behind Mr. Long’s shop in Prey Veng province. (Brendan O’Byrne/The Cambodia Daily)

Winging It

Despite a crash, a fair share of ridicule and instruction limited to YouTube videos, car mechanic Paen Long is continuing his quest to build and fly a homemade airplane. Brendan O’Byrne and Buth Kimsay meet him at his shop in Prey Veng province 

By Brendan O’Byrne and Buth Kimsay

June 16, 2017

PREY CHHOR COMMUNE – People in this rural community have been asking themselves one question lately: Is Paen Long crazy?

For the past few months, Mr. Long, who owns a car repair shop on the side of the road about 100 km southeast of Phnom Penh, has been building, flying, and crashing his homemade airplane.

The main problem—pointed out by several aviation experts and freely acknowledged by Mr. Long himself—is that the 30-year-old doesn’t actually know how to build an airplane and has no previous flying experience.

He’s been using YouTube videos to piece the plane together. Which seems like a good idea except the videos are in English, a language Mr. Long never learned and doesn’t speak.

“I spent five years watching the videos,” he says in Khmer at his home. “I watched and watched the pictures, 10 to 20 times, to make sure I understood.”

The process has met with mixed success and it’s been a turbulent journey so far, not least because he crashed his first plane during its maiden flight in March. Some people might give up after such an inauspicious start, but not Mr. Long. Undaunted, he has already started building a second airplane in his shop.

Asked why he’s undertaking such a dangerous hobby, in the face of criticism and at great personal expense, Mr. Long’s response was simple: Why not?

“I’m just doing what I love. I don’t think I’m crazy,” he says. “Everything that’s been made, that people use, came from ‘crazy’ people.”

Mr. Long’s unusual obsession with flight first began when he was a boy. At 6, he saw a helicopter crash in his hometown in neighboring Svay Rieng province during the early 1990s. He rushed to the scene and, by the time he arrived, all that was left was a burned metal husk, charred clothes and the pilot’s remains.

Paen Long, right, and his wife Ing Muy Heng sit at a table in their car mechanic shop in Prey Veng province. (Brendan O’Byrne/The Cambodia Daily)

“Ever since then, I wanted to fly,” Mr. Long says. “The people here rarely see planes, and they are so wonderful.”

He dropped out of school in the fifth grade, became a long-haul truck driver at the age of 12, then switched to auto mechanics and moved to Kompong Trabek district in Prey Veng province to open up his own shop.

It took him a year to build his first prototype. A beast of a craft, with a 5.5-meter wingspan and more than 400 kg in weight, there was only a seat for the pilot—a plastic chair with sawn-off legs. Constructed of recycled materials, the body and wings were made of gasoline barrels and a car dashboard served as the control panel.

After finishing the plane, which cost about $10,000, depleting Mr. Long’s savings, he did exactly what his wife, Ing Muy Heng, feared the most. He took it for a test flight.

On March 8, after a couple of test-runs where he barely left the ground, Mr. Long sat in the aircraft on the “runway”—a dirt track near some rice fields—and prepared for a real flight. A crowd of about 200 had turned up to watch.

“It went really high,” he says, recalling the ascent. But after soaring to about 50 meters, briefly living his dream, Mr. Long abruptly fell to Earth.

“It was like a car that was broken,” he says, miming his attempt to pull up on the plane’s center stick.

As the plane crashed, the propeller snapped. But Mr. Long was spared, much to the relief of his wife, the mother of the couple’s two sons, aged 10 and 8 months.

While he was physically fine, the crash took an emotional toll, compounded by a steady stream of ridicule from some of his fellow villagers and, occasionally, complete strangers.

The day after the crash, two strangers showed up in a Lexus SUV and gave him an envelope. Inside was $10 in cash, and a note that read: “Long, this is $10 for your funeral when you crash your plane.”

The insult was the last straw for Mr. Long, who sank into a two-week, alcohol-fueled depression.

“I felt very sad,” Mr. Long says. “I just wanted to drink.”

He eventually climbed out of his fortnight of self-pity through his wife’s continued support—and, he admits, his discovery of a new YouTube video. This one featured amateur planemakers building and flying their own craft.

His desire to fly renewed, Mr. Long got back to work. This time, he’s building a smaller plane. It should cost about a fourth of his first design and will be built to take off from the water. That way, Mr. Long explains, a crash wouldn’t be as dangerous.

When it’s ready for take-off, he plans to transport the seaplane 20 km by truck to neighboring Svay Rieng province and launch it on the Waiko River.

Mr. Long’s tenacity in the face of adversity has captured the imagination and attention of people around the world. His story has been picked up by the international media, including the BBC, which reported on Mr. Long’s maiden flight.

Several aviation experts from around the world contacted The Daily following the media coverage. They expressed concerns for the budding aviator’s safety but were equally impressed with his spirit.

“You look at the pictures, and the airplane doesn’t have a hope of ever flying,” says John Smith, a pilot instructor with 50 years of flight experience.

“The wing chord is too thick, the weight of it, and the size of the engine…it’ll never generate the amount of lift you’d require,” he says. “But 10 out of 10 for the effort.”

Mr. Smith is the general manager of the Bangkok-based Asian Aviation Training Centre, a flight school that certifies commercial airline pilots from around the world. He’s invited Mr. Long to the company’s office in Bangkok for an all-expenses-paid training session, offering a rundown of basic flight theory, as well as a test run in the center’s state-of-the-art simulator.

The goal, Mr. Smith says, is to teach Mr. Long a few fundamentals to prevent him from hurting himself and, “if nothing else, give him the experience of a lifetime and stimulate his imagination.”

The head of training at the center started off much the same as Mr. Long, building and selling his own planes before becoming a professional pilot, Mr. Smith says, and many of the instructors are eager to assist the young Cambodian’s dream.

“Their imaginations are tickled by Mr. Long,” he says. “They’re all prepared to give their time.”

Back in Prey Veng province, Mr. Long says he’s interested in the opportunity but, as he doesn’t possess a passport, and isn’t sure how to get one, he’s unsure when he’ll be able to go.

However, he plans to try, and until then, he’s focused on his second project, the seaplane—a dream Mr. Smith says is even more complex than the first, and also likely to end in failure.

But Mr. Long continues undeterred, selling scrap car parts and negotiating with his wife to divert 30 percent of his shop’s profits to the project.

Ms. Muy Heng admits she was originally surprised to learn of her husband’s lifelong ambition to be a pilot.

“I didn’t know when we married,” she says.

“If she did, she would never have agreed,” Mr. Long adds.

“At first, I was so nervous. I worried about his safety,” Ms. Muy Heng says. But now, she is her husband’s biggest supporter, encouraging him and supporting him whenever she can.

“Some people say we’re crazy people,” she says. “I don’t respond to them….I’ve seen him fly three times, and it’s close to success already.” 

Less than a kilometer down the road, the owner of a food stall expresses the same mix of admiration and doubt that many have toward Mr. Long’s project.

“It’s good to have Khmer people invent and create,” Phon Cheng says. “I’m happy he has the idea, but I don’t support the flying. The flying can be dangerous to himself and others.”

Mr. Cheng worries about Mr. Long’s safety, and hopes that he can get some technical advice on the project.

“I want people to come help him,” he says. “If he gets help from experts…I would support him 100 percent.”

Whether Mr. Long is a misguided danger to himself and others, a pioneering trailblazer, or a little of both, the would-be aviator has no plans to give up on his dream of conquering the skies.

“I’m not worried.” he says. “Even if I die of a crash, it’s no problem. This is what I love.” 

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