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Vietnam Airlines Flight 815

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September 3, 1997



Pilot error


Vietnam Airlines Flight 815

800 meters short of runway of Pochentong Airport, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Vietnam Airlines Flight 815 was a scheduled Vietnam Airlines flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh's Pochentong Airport. The Tupolev Tu-134B-3 aircraft (built in 1984) crashed on final approach approximately 800 meters (0.5 mi) short of the runway, killing 65 of the 66 persons on board. The aircraft was completely destroyed.



Flight 815 departed Ho Chi Minh City around 1 o'clock in the afternoon for the 45-minute flight to Phnom Penh. The aircraft was approaching the Phnom Penh airport from the east in heavy rain. According to acting airport director and investigating committee chief Sok Sambour, the plane was supposed to be flying at 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) when it began its approach, but was at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) when it reached the range of Pochentong's Non-Directional Beacon.

The airport previously had a VOR/DME located on station, but it had been looted the previous July. Because of this pilots had to use the NDB located 5 km west in order to get a general fix of the area, and had to keep descending until they could make visual contact with the airfield in inclement weather. As a result, the frequency of aborted landings had increased over the rainy season. The runway lights had also been looted, but were reportedly replaced and illuminated at the time.

Once in range of the NDB, the pilot asked the control tower for permission to land at 5,000 feet (1,500 meters). The control tower agreed, but requested the pilot remind the control tower often of its approach, due to the heavy weather. However, when the plane approached the airport it was at 3,000 feet (900 meters) when the pilot again asked for permission to land, stating that he could not find the runway. The pilot was given permission to drop to 2,000 feet (600 meters) and was told to keep in contact.

After a moment the control tower inquired if the pilot had found the runway, to which the pilot replied that he could not see the runway. The control tower then informed the pilot that the wind direction was changing. The pilot was on an eastern approach to runway 23; the tower requested that the pilot instead approach runway 5 from the west. Continuing on the eastern approach would cause the pilot to attempt to land downwind. The pilot acknowledged the request, and had no further contact with the control tower.

Two minutes later, Flight 815 was spotted still approaching from the east. The plane kept descending until it was 200 feet (60 meters) above the ground. The cockpit voice recorder showed at that time the first officer, Hoang Van Dinh, asked the captain, Pham Van Tieu, to pull up and abort the landing, as they still did not have visual of the runway. The captain said he would wait a little. The plane descended to 100 feet (30 meters), still with no visual of the runway, at which point the first officer and the flight engineer again asked the captain to abort the landing. It was too late, however; four seconds later the left wing of the plane struck a palm tree. At that time they were not in line with the runway, having veered left across the military side of the airport. Striking the tree caused one engine to stop. The right wing skimmed across a house. The plane tilted to the left and hit the ground at 270 kph (168 mph).

Eyewitnesses state that flames began to spew out of the plane's tail after it struck the tree. One witness states he saw an emergency door open and could see passengers crowded at the door, but none jumped before the airplane struck the ground. The aircraft then slid 200 yards (180 m) through several dry rice paddies before exploding at around 1:40 pm.

Passengers and crew

The 22 Taiwanese nationals were mostly coming for business. Two or three were planning to be married. Ho Suicheng planned to wed his fiancee, Cambodian Khuth Linda, the following day. Khuth identified Ho's body the day after the crash, and went through the wedding ceremony with his photograph. She attended his funeral the following day. Of the 21 Koreans, six were part of a medical team donating equipment to Phnom Penh University. There was a four-person family including a priest, as well as two children of Korean embassy staff. The three Cambodians were Kham Kassara, Ly Hong and Ngoun Bopha. The Australian citizen was Li Hieng, who was born in Cambodia and moved to Adelaide in 1993. He was the director of the Miss London garment factory in Kampong Cham. The UK national, Peter Wright, was the director of Apex Dalat, a garment manufacturer in Vietnam's central highlands.


Five people were still alive after the crash and were taken to the hospital. Only two survived; 14-month-old Chanayuth Nim-anong from Thailand suffered broken legs and four-year-old Vu Hung Thinh of Vietnam received head wounds. One of them later died, bringing the total fatalities from the crash to 65.

Wreckage and recovery

The plane skimmed the top of a house and damaged it before landing on an oxcart road. One wing decapitated two cows. Initial looting of the scene was done by military and police. Once the bodies were removed, villagers looted much of the remaining personal belongings and parts of the aircraft. Cambodia's government offered a reward for the return of the missing flight recorders. The three flight recorders, one for audio, one for flight data, and one for stand-by, were obtained from the villagers for US$10, $200, and $1500.


There was some debate between the airline and Phnom Penh officials over who was to blame. The airline argued that the navigational equipment at the airport was out of order and the Phnom Penh control tower gave the pilots incorrect information prior to takeoff.

However, the report by Cambodia's Aircraft Accident Investigation Committee put the blame solely on pilot error. The report concluded that the principal factors were

  • the captain did not follow the instructions of the approach controller in the control tower and he made the decision to continue to descend in very bad weather
  • the captain ignored the advice of his first officer and flight engineer
  • the captain's insistence in engaging the auto pilot even after passing the minimum height at which one should decide whether or not to land
  • the captain's impulsive actions to continue his approach in the conditions revealed "his psychological unreadiness to abort the landing and go around"
  • Examinations of the aircraft and records determined that there was no mechanical problem and all maintenance was up to date. The crew all had valid licenses and medical certificates.


    Vietnam Airlines Flight 815 Wikipedia

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