From a humble workshop in Phnom Penh, the dream of a small team of aviation enthusiasts takes flight with their successful development of model aeroplanes.
The team named Khomnit – which is the Khmer word for “ideas” – was founded in 2005 by 28-year-old Johnny Churne.
Owing to limited internet access in Cambodia at the time, the team began its research by reading aviation books, magazines and newspapers.
“Our team consists of people who carry the passion and commitment to learning how to create model aircraft. We persistently work together even if we don’t get a paycheck.
“They [team members] are still in high school, yet they take the time to gather to pursue a shared goal,” says Churne.
As determined as they are, Churne says the task of finding a workshop for the project was an ordeal in itself. Fortunately, one of the members’ parents allowed them the use of their house despite the clutter they produced.
Their first model was a 1m Dive Shark model which weighed around 900g. Despite the lack of an engine, it could fly a distance of 40-80m depending on wind conditions.
Now, the team has upgraded to selling foam-built model aeroplanes of three different sizes. They sell for between $3 and $10.
“We have clients from within and outside the Kingdom. They come from as far as Hong Kong, China and India,” says Churne.
The “real deal,” he says, is the 7kg Airbus A350 RC aeroplane model, which is in its final stage of completion, after which, it will be subject to a flight test.
Equipped with high-performance batteries, the model is expected to fly between 40m and 80m from the ground. “If the flight test goes well, we’ll start selling each unit for $2,500,” he says.
Churne’s fascination with aircraft started at the orphanage, where he stayed since turning five. One day, an Australian visitor asked him about his dreams and aspirations.
“As a kid, I’ve always dreamed of building real aeroplanes, even flying them. Since I was an orphan and didn’t have enough financial support, I felt hopeless.
“Add to that, I was born with a short stature, which is really not ideal for my dream career. So I came to terms with the fact that if I cannot be a pilot, I’ll build the aircraft myself.
“I told all of these to that man. To my astonishment, he turned out to be an employee of The Boeing Company,” recalls Churne.
Upon returning to Australia, Churne says the man sent him two books – one about aeroplanes and another about aircraft engines.
For nearly 15 years, Churne has tirelessly worked on conducting aviation research and creating several successful aeroplane models that stunned visitors at Cambodia’s biggest aviation exhibit, the Air and Tech Show.
Organised by the Royal Cambodian Air Force and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, it was held a couple weeks ago.
“I think I started at the right time because I believe that the Kingdom’s economy will continue to accelerate. To ensure growth, I believe the country’s tourism sector will be extremely busy which, in turn, will alllow the air transport industry to soar,” says Churne.
Churne says it is quite challenging for a team with insufficient financial and technical support to progress.
But every failed test flight means they would have to leaf through the pages of their resource books one more time, recalculate, and make another test model.
“It takes several attempts – sometimes up to 50 – before the model can successfully go airborne the way we expect,” he says.
Another challenge is breaking people’s misconceptions about their projects. Many people, he says, think that his team is merely making toys, which is a “totally useless” thing to do.
“Actually, what we’re making are prototypes for aircraft design. These models represent the melding of aircraft theories and technical calculations.
“Right now, we’re only making aircraft models but we’re confident that once we have the means, we’ll be capable of building real aircrafts.
“Some people might think that what we do only takes a quick YouTube search. In fact, a quick search would only lead them to a rough tutorial of basic aircraft model-building,” Churne says.
The Khomnit team of seven said precision in the wingspan and weight, as well as the type of engine that’s suitable for it, are key elements in aircraft construction.
“By calculating these, we’ll know how much fuel we’ll need to fly a certain distance, and at what altitude and speed. Everything needs to be locked in for safety.”
Apart from the dream of building commercial and military aircraft, Churne also tinkers with the idea of producing small air-freight planes or small tourist carriers.
He adds: “We can produce light aircraft to aid in patrols. We can even coordinate with disaster management authorities to check on flooded areas by using them. It is our dream to head towards this future.”
For more information, visit Khomnit Team’s Facebook page @Khomnit or contact 077 72 63 90.