June 23, 2011

Soaring above Siem Reap


One of Sky Venture’s two ultralight aircraft in flight.
SOARING over a thousand metres above Siem Reap’s temples in a microlight aircraft resembling a motorcycle with wings is the “best fun you can have with your clothes on”, according to Sky Venture CEO David Sayer.

His ultra-light aircraft business has proven an instant hit with tourists and locals alike since opening in January.

Nicknamed “moto haus”, or flying moto, by his Cambodian neighbours, Sayer’s two GT450 microlight aircraft have been busy flying passengers around the Angkor Archaeological Park and other temple spots almost non-stop over the last four months.

Developed for commercial use in the late 1970s, microlight aircraft are lightweight one or two person fixed-wing aircraft, first originating as hang gliders with engines attached.

Derided as “flying clotheslines” by aviation purists, later generations of microlights including the G2 450 model that Sky Venture operates, are becoming popular with aircraft hobbyists all around the world.

Sayer began flying the manoeuvrable aircraft in the UK after retiring from a fifteen- year career as a Royal Air Force engineer.

Sayer told The Post the last thing he intended was to open a microlight aircraft business in Cambodia, but the idea became more feasible after he imported an aircraft for his own use last year.

“It’s one of these things that just snowballed. I wanted to fly because it’s my hobby and I’m useless at golf.”

After originally clearing Cambodian customs without a hurdle, despite some questions about whether the machine could actually fly, Sayer was soon airborne. The presence of such an unusual aircraft in the skies above Siem Reap quickly became the object of local gossip.

“People would see us fly and ask whether we could take them for a flight. Some of our first passengers were local Khmer. Tourists would see us flying and track us down.”

An increasing amount of interest from tourists convinced Sayer that rides in his aircraft was a viable business, and after importing a second craft he launched Sky Venture in January.

He claimed the move at first flummoxed local aviation officials, who nevertheless supported the venture.

“Civil aviation have been incredible helpful, but we had to have a lot of meetings at first because they didn’t have any structured light aircraft rules and regulations. The one thing they made clear that you’ve got to do here is be respectful of the temples. If you fly over temples and pagodas you’ll be shut down tomorrow.”

Capable of remaining in the air for up to five hours at a time, Sky Venture provides passengers the choice of customising their own route, with shorter flights of 15 minutes priced at US$50 and longer trips of an hour or more ranging from $160 upwards.

The design of microlight aircraft means that pilots have to choose the weather conditions they fly in carefully, said Sayer. In 10,000 hours of flying he says he has never landed an aircraft anywhere other than “down on the runway and back in the hanger” and “doesn’t intend to start now.”

In addition to Sayer, Sky Venture employs one other pilot and six ground support staff, with tentative plans to expand the business by adding an autogyro to the fleet.

The photographic opportunities provided by soaring above the province in an aircraft open to the elements have been jumped on by local government officials, who recently hired Sayer to photograph and video Siem Reap’s new government headquarters, called the Administrative City, from the air.

Despite this foray into aerial photography, Sayer said he intends to keep Sky Venture focused on tourist flights.

He says he still feels the same thrill as many first time flyers every time he takes off from the runway.

“I’ve never taken off without a buzz, and an element of trepidation, but the euphoria of is incredible,” he said.

“When passengers tell you this is the best thing they’ve ever done in their lives you, must be doing something right.”

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