January 13 is observed each year in Thailand as National Aviation Day (Wan Kanbin Haeng Chat — วันการบินแห่งชาติ). This year, 2018, it happens to coincide with another annual celebration — National Children’s Day (Wan Dek Haeng Chat — วันเด็กแห่งชาติ) which has been observed on the second Saturday of January since 1965. Unusually, I have not been able to find any information online as to when Thai National Aviation Day was established and what occurred on this date that it commemorates.
The history of aviation in Thailand goes back over a century when, during the reign of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), a Belgian aviator named Charles Van den Born made the first flight demonstrations in what was then Siam. The Société d’ Aviation d’ Extrème Orient, formed by Karl Offer, had organized a “Bangkok Flying Week” from January 31 to February 6, 1911, at Sra Pathum Racecourse. An extra demonstration was added on February 9, 1911, due to public demand. Several foreign aviators had been invited but only Van den Born had arrived and conducted his flights in a Henri Farman IV biplane named Wanda in the presence of the Siamese royal family and high-ranking army officers.
The following letter, published in the Bangkok Times Weekly on February 8, 1911, describes the first flights over Siamese soil:
“Last evening His Majesty the King paid an unexpected visit to the course and watched the proceedings with apparent interest, Subsequently His Majesty went over and inspected the aeroplane and conversed with Mr. Van den Born for some minutes, after which the aviator made a short flight so that the King could see the machine start from close quarters. Among those present yesterday were H. R. H. the Prince of Pitsanulok and H. R. H. Prince Nares. Mr. van den Born had had trouble with his motor all day and only in the evening was it working satisfactorily. After a trial flight, the aviator gave a lesson to an Army officer, going several miles in a few minutes. An exhibition flight in the enclosure for a prize given by Chinese firm, was heartily applauded and admiration was excited by the graceful salute given each time the machine passed His Majesty’s stand. Dr. M. A. Smith then was a passenger and had a capital flight out beyond the Police School. It was now getting dark but one more flight was made, Mr. P. Nesbitt being the passenger. Once or twice the aviator stopped his engine and came down at a big speed but a slight movement of the planes always brought the machine parallel with the ground the momentum already acquired being sufficient to enable the aeroplane to glide smoothly along until the desired spot was reached.
“This morning flights were made by the Prince and Princess of Nagorn Jaisri, Prince Adisorn, and Mrs. Hamilton Price. In each case the flight were quite extended ones and were greatly enjoyed by the passengers.”
The flights occurred at Sra Prathum, the racecourse of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club which was then in a fairly remote suburb of the capital surrounded by fields. Fifteen new entrances had been erected in preparation for the flying demonstrations, as well as construction of four bridges across neighboring canals. Hundreds converged on the track to watch the flights, among them such notables as Prince Chakrabongse, Chief of the Army General Staff, and Prince Purachatra, Commander of the Army Engineers, both brothers of King Vajiravudh.
“Whether the biplane is an easy machine to handle or whether the skill of Mr. Van den Born makes it appear so is difficult to tell,” reported the Bangkok Times. “At any rate the flights accomplished were to all appearances easy and graceful. The quiet manner in which the machine simply drifted off into the air and the smoothness with which the land was regained elicited much admiration.”
There is some confusion over whether Prince Chakrabongse or Prince Purachatra was the first Thai to leave the ground in an airplane, though the newspaper accounts suggest that it was the latter, on a test flight the day before the demonstrations officially opened. In any event, both certainly flew — “in uniform with riding boots and spurs”, according to Lords of Life by Prince Chakrabongse’s son — and so did numerous others, paying 50 baht for the experience. The first foreigner to glimpse Bangkok from the air was identified as a “Mr. F. Bopp” and the first Thai woman appears to have been the Princess of Nagorn Chaisri.
On January 18, 1912, the Ministry of War sent three officers — Major Luang Sakdi Sanlayawut (Sunee Suwanprateep), Captain Luang Arwut Sikikorn and First Lieutenant Tip Ketuthat — to France to attend aviation courses. In future years, Siamese officers also went to attend military school and study engineering in Germany, England, Denmark, and Russia. In the meantime, the Ministry of War had authorized the purchase of seven aircraft from the French for its proposed flying unit; three Breguet biplanes and four Nieuport II monoplanes. A fourth Breguet was bought by Chao Phraya Aphai Pubet, a wealthy resident of Cambodian extraction, who donated the machine to the Ministry of War, such donations by the public were to become frequent in the next decade and played an important part in building up Siam’s fleet of planes.
The eight planes were used for test flights by three Thai officers training in France. The three Thai pilots, together with the aircraft and a French mechanic, returned to their homeland by a lengthy route across Russia to Japan, witnessing a number of flying demonstrations on the way. They finally arrived back in Bangkok on November 2, 1913. A temporary headquarters, with hangars, was established near the race track where Van den Born had made his flights. It was here that the new aircraft were assembled with assistance from the French mechanic, and on December 29, a little over a month after their return, they were ready for the first demonstrations of Thai pilots flying over their own country.
Once more, Prince Chakrabongse was in attendance, together with his Russian wife, along with other military officers. Lt.-Colonel Luang Sakdi, who had been the first to receive his flying license, was scheduled to be first off the ground in one of the Breguet biplanes. Due to engine trouble, he decided to delay his flight until the next day. At 7:30 in the morning, therefore, Major Luang Arwut became the first Thai pilot to demonstrate his skill before his countrymen when he took off in a Nieuport monoplane.
“The machine shot forward,” reported the Bangkok Times. “A cheer went up from the assembled spectators as it rose into the air and sped across the golf links. Turning at the Sala Dang end, the aviator made a circle of the course and then went over the links again to land. Bunkers seemed terribly prominent, but the aviator chose his spot and the hum of the motor died as he glided gently to earth.”
The first flying demonstration for the public took place on January 13, 1914, with King Vajiravudh in attendance. In his diary for that day, the King echoed the sentiments of most of the large crowd when he wrote, “I am delighted to see that we Thais are not bested by the Westerner, truly we can do whatever they can do.”
An Aviation Unit was established in the Siamese Army with its headquarters at the Sra Pathum Airfield. Obviously, the location in what was now the center of Bangkok and the small size of the Sra Pathum Airfield was not really suitable for a proper airfield. The new flying unit was to be based at Don Muang, some 23 kilometers north of Bangkok, a site personally selected by Prince Chakrabongse because the land there was relatively high and thus less subject to flooding in the monsoon season. Construction began in early 1915 on a proper airfield, with hangars and other facilities that, starting March 7, 1915, housed the upgraded Army Air Corps. The first plane, a Nieuport, landed there on March 8. In those days, the airfield wasn’t connected to Bangkok by road, the only access being by railway on the northern line which passed the site. Today, Don Muang is the oldest airport in the world still being used in its original location.
On March 27, 1915, now celebrated as Royal Thai Air Force Day, the Ministry of War promoted the new section to become the Aviation Division of the Army. With Lt.-Col. Sakdi as Head and Major Luang Arwut as second-in-command, it consisted of a flying section, a flying school to train new pilots, and a workshop. Instruction of flyers on home ground had been an important part of the scheme from the beginning, and even before the move to Don Muang the Ministry had begun accepting applications. Eight army officers were selected for the first class, five of whom passed through the course successfully in 1915.
In view of the difficulties presented by trying to obtain spare parts from distant Europe, Colonel Praya Chalern Akas — a special title given to Lt.-Col. Luang Sakdi in June, 1914 — set about obtaining material and personnel for Siam to build his own aircraft. The first attempt, a copy of a Nieuport constructed of local wood, was not flown but used to taxi on the field. The first Thai-made plane to leave the ground was a Breguet biplane, which was successfully test-flown by Colonel Chalerm Akas on May 24, 1915.
The Army began using aircraft for reconnaissance, flying at 500 to 800 meters, toward the end of 1915, and early the following year they were used on a much larger scale during maneuvers held at Ratchaburi, south-west of Bangkok. Four Breguets under Colonel Chalerm Akas were assigned to one side in the mock combat and four Nieuports under Major Tayan Pikat to the other, enabling the Army to gain valuable experience in the deployment of aircraft and operational procedures.
All these activities had been followed with great interest by King Vajiravudth. The first Thai ruler to be educated abroad, he had a wide range of knowledge concerning Western affairs and was particularly conscious of the need to develop a modern army. At his coronation celebrations, in 1910, an entire day had been given over to military programs, with some 30,000 troops — the largest force ever assembled in Bangkok — taking part. In later years, he spent lavish sums to acquire new ships, arms, and other equipment and usually made a point of attending the annual maneuvers held by the Army.
The Aviation Division was not only an extension of these programs but also one with special appeal to the King, representing as it did the very latest in military development. He made the first of a number of visits to the Division’s new home soon after it moved to Don Muang and also attended the Ratchaburi maneuvers. On his second visit to Don Muang in December 1916, after inspecting the aircraft and workshops and watching a flying demonstration, he offered the following observation: “Today I have seen that our Aviation Division is well developed. People around the world believe that it is a very difficult task. But I have seen that our Thai people have done it well without any help. All of you, from the highest to the lowest position, please accept my thanks.”
When World War I started in 1916 the King of Siam wished to remain neutral but as that was not a viable political choice, on July 11, 1917, Siam declared war on the Central Powers, thus entering the conflict on the side of the Allies. In June of the following year, an Expeditionary Force of 1,200 men from the Army Air Corps and Transport Corps. The aviation contingent numbering about 340, was sent to France, the only Asian soldiers to take part in the war. Thai pilots flew only a few operational missions toward the end of the fighting, but the lack of combat opportunities was more than compensated for by the training facilities available to them; more than 100 officers were sent to flying schools at Istres and Avord, of whom 95 qualified as military pilots and received advanced training in observation.
The aviation contingent was the first to return to Bangkok, on May 1, 1919. According to historian, Walter Vella, “The welcome arrangements were elaborate: buildings along the Chao Phraya River were decorated; fireworks were set off; the King, officials, troops, and families all greeted the returning soldiers at appointed places. The King gave each of the soldiers a medal commemorating his service in the war. And he addressed the returning members of the Expeditionary Force as comrades and as sons who had brought honor and fame to Siam, its monarch, and its people.”
The participation of Siam in the war secured, at the end of the war, the procurement of fifteen aircraft from its allies. The new additions, Nieuport, Spad and Brequet 24 planes, created a good foundation for the Army Air Corps, but Siam wished to do more in terms of building their own aircraft.
Efforts to meet the shortcoming of previously owning only three planes, which eventually wore down and were in constant need of maintenance and spare parts, sped up the process of building their own aircraft. By 1927, when Thailand designed and built its first original plane, only a few planes had been built locally using foreign designs but Siamese materials. These were a Brequet biplane, a bomber and reconnaissance aircraft (1915), and the fighter aircraft Niuport 15 (1922), Spad Type 7 (1923), and Niuport Delarge (1924).
Siam’s most successful airplane, the one whose name is known by almost all Thai people, is Boripatra (บริพัตร), a bomber aircraft Type B-2, which was entirely designed and built using local expertise in 1927. Records are not exactly accurate when it comes to the number of aircraft built, but most historians believe that about twelve Boripatra planes were built in all. These were used mostly to fly diplomatic missions abroad. Two years later, in 1929, the Siamese built their second plane, this time a single-seat fighter which was named Prachatipok, after King Rama VII. By 1982, Thailand had built 159 aircraft of local or foreign design with the focus switching from bombers and fighter planes to trainer aircraft in the 1970s.
The first flight to another country by Thai pilots was accomplished in 1922, when four Breguet aircraft flew to French Indochina and back on a friendship mission, followed by a similar diplomatic mission of three Boripat aircraft in 1930. Both missions had their end port at Hanoi, which served as the capital of French Indochina until 1954.
A groundbreaking step in Thai aviation was the successful flight of two Boripat aircraft to India, a feat which was completed in January 1930, after almost one month of travelling after several stops on the way. Unfortunately, only two of the three Boripat planes made it to their destination, as one aircraft crashed in the forests of Uthai Thani on Siamese soil.
The “air letter” — a lightweight printed correspondence form — actually originated in Thailand in August 1932. It was designed by R.B. Jackson for use by Air Orient on flights between Asia and Europe. The form was inscribed with the title Air O Gram and bore adhesive postage stamps as required. The first known usage is early in 1933. The Iraqi postal authorities later copied the design (helped by an Englishman named Douglas W. Gumbley) which was then taken up by Palestine while under British mandate and eventually by the British during World War II. Still in use, it is now known usually as an aerogramme and given a standard format at the thirteenth Universal Postal Union Congress in 1951-1952.
The Air Force Division became the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) in 1937 when it was also restructured under the Ministry of War. Since 1979, the RTAF flag is sky blue with its own emblem containing the royal cipher: double-wings topped by the Great Crown of Victory with light emanating from the top and the Thai symbol for Aum under, a Buddhist-Hindu sacred sign representing the Path to Enlightenment.
Since the late 19th century, by its presence in Indochina, France had consistently pressured Thailand into conceding territories to maintain its independence. In 1940, Thailand took advantage of France’s involvement on the European front and attacked it in Indochina. This resulted in the Franco-Thai war which also included aerial warfare involving the Royal Thai Air Force. Unlike the Royal Thai Navy, which was inferior to France’s, the Thai Air Force had advantages both in quantity and quality over the French Armée de l’Air. Among the 140 aircraft that the Thais employed numbered Japanese and American-made fighter planes and bombers.
A Japanese “brokered” armistice and treaty ended the war less than a year later in 1941, with Thailand recovering some of the lost territories. Thirteen pilots of the Thai Air Force died and they, among all the other 54 men killed in battle, are honored every year on February 3 at Victory Monument in central Bangkok. This military obelisk, built to commemorate Thailand’s victory, is flanked by the statues of five soldiers, one of them representing the air force. Seven months later, on December 8, 1941, the Japanese invaded Thailand and engaged the Thai Air Force in Prachin Buri and Prachuap Kiri Khan until a cease-fire took place.
The Thai Air Force sent three C-47s to support the United Nations in Korean War (1950-1953), assisting in military operations by conducting airlift missions. The support Thailand showed in the fight against the communist front in Southeast Asia encouraged Western powers, especially the United States, to assist Thailand in growing its air force potential. Thus, in 1950, various types of aircraft were received from the USA in an agreement brokered by Field Marshal Phibun. Therefore it was not surprising that in 1964, fourteen pilots were sent to assist South Vietnam in its fight against North Vietnam.
Wings Unit, operating the C-47, also joined the anti-communist forces in the Vietnam War. Along the border, the Thai Air Force launched many operations against communist forces, including the Ban Nam Ta Airfield Raid in Laos, and clashes between Thai and communist Vietnamese troops along the Thai-Cambodian border. When the Cold War ended, the Thai Air Force participated in Operation Border Post 9631 along the Thai-Burmese border in 1999, and launched the evacuation of foreigners during the 2003 Phnom Penh riots in Cambodia.
Today, The Royal Thai Air Force maintains a number of modern bases which were constructed between 1954 and 1968, have permanent buildings and ground support equipment. All but one were built and used by United States forces until their withdrawal from Thailand in 1976 when Thai air force assumed use of the installations at Takhli and Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat). In the late 1980s, these bases and Don Muang Air Base outside Bangkok, which the air force shares with civil aviation, remain the primary operational installations.
Maintenance of base facilities abandoned by the United States proved costly and exceeded Thai needs. Nonetheless, all runways were still available for training and emergency use. By 2004 the Royal Thai Air Force had its main base at Don Muang airport, adjacent to Don Mueang International Airport. The RTAF also had large air fields and facilities at Nakon Ratchasima, Ubon Ratchathani, and Takhli.
On January 31, 2008, a Thai movie commonly known as First Flight debuted, telling the history of early Siamese aviation. Work on the film started in 2002 and went through three different scripts, five different directors, four different producers, and three different titles before it finally premiered under the title Rak Siam Tao Fah (Love Siam as much as the sky). This was the first Thai movie to use real aerials in the production of a film. Three scale models of the Breguet 14 were built and filmed against a blue screen to later be inserted in the aerials. The computer graphic team had never flown before; they were taken flying and given the controls of the plane, so that they could feel the movements that they would need to create with computer graphics.
The Communication Authority of Thailand released a single stamp on December 10, 1969, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Siamese airmail flight. The 1-baht engraved stamp, perforated 13½, portrays a biplane along with mailmen and a map of the 1919 flight. However, I have been unable to determine any details about the flight itself, including the date (December 10 is Constitution Day in Thailand and was probably picked for no real connection to the actual anniversary). History of Air Cargo and Airmail from the 18th Century by Camille Allaz mentions that by 1922 the administration itself operated a weekly airmail line serving several localities on the Korat Plateau in the east of the country (Ubon, Roi-Et, etc.). Allaz also states than an unusual feature of this service was that no airmail surcharge was collected. Until I can find some more information, the stamp — and today’s holiday — remain a mystery.