In March 2002, the Sydney University Greater Angkor Project hired Cooney and ultralight flying instructor Eddie Smith to assist in locating new temple sites in areas difficult to explore by land. Later joined by Baer, this group of ultralight enthusiasts is now recruited regularly.
"A few weeks ago we got a call from the Wildlife Conservation society," Cooney said. "They had been tracking a released croc but lost it by boat so we tracked it by air using a directional antenna and receiver. We've also assisted them in finding new nesting sites of pelicans."
Cooney explained that from an aerial view over the flooded forests of the Tonle Sap Lake, where the research was taking place, the nesting trees are painted white with bird dung and can be seen from miles away. By boat these can be extremely difficult to locate, even when directly below them.
The group was also recently hired to assist in filming a documentary series for Animal Planet about the Mekong River system. Smith, who's first Cambodian work assignment was in aerial photography, said that a lot of their work comes from various conservation and archaeological groups. While flying with the team, members of these projects have made a number of discoveries, including locating four previously unknown Angkorian temple sites.
"We can't hover like a helicopter or take off and land vertically," said Smith in regard to the ultralights business appeal, "but we don't cost $1,300 per hour."
But the appeal in owning these planes is not a financial one.
"We're the aviation misfits." said Cooney. "Flying an ultralight is pure fun. It's all about flying for yourself."
Landing on an old French airstrip in the middle of the countryside of Kampong Speu, people start flooding in from everywhere, by bicycle, motorbike, and on foot as the planes come in to land.
"For them it's like Elvis just landed in a space ship," Smith said.
Even here, a regular stop for the ultralight crew, the excitement is ripe among the villages. Baer says that in the outer areas sometimes 500 people will appear from nowhere, having walked sometimes for miles just to see and hopefully touch the "flying motorbike."
"It's like Cambodian barnstorming," he said.
Smith relates a story of a man that had lost both legs who peddled his adapted bicycle 8 km from his home just to see this amazing sight up close and was ecstatic when Smith offered to take him for a flight.
"We have taken a lot of bigwigs up with us but I prefer to take the Cambodians," Eddie said. "I know they'll never get another chance to fly. It's like a roller coaster ride for them. It scares the shit out of them but they want to do it again."