Kai Tak Airport Hong Kong
By, JRHafer, aviation writer
The Hong Kong, Kai Tak International Airport, from 1925 until 1998 was in the middle of the populated mountainous basin and within the large metropolitan area of the British controlled, Chinese City of Hong Kong.
Landing at Kai Tak International Airport was a dramatic and frightening experience for first-time passengers landing there and most often a technically demanding and challenging task for pilots, due to numerous skyscrapers jutting up within the flight pattern of the airliners and the Mountains directly north of the only runway to the north of the airport. The landing aircraft had to circumnavigate the buildings while in the pattern, but needed to be diligent about not hitting the side of the mountains while on approach as well.
Pilots would, upon reaching a small hill marked with a checkerboard in red and white, use as a visual reference point on the final approach need to make a 47° visual right turn to line up with the runway and complete the final leg. The aircraft would be just two nautical miles (3.7 km) from touchdown, at a height of less than 1,000 feet when the turn was made. Generally, the plane would enter the final right turn at a height of about 650 feet or 200 meters and exit it at a height of 140 feet to line up with the runway. This maneuver became widely known in the piloting community as the “Hong Kong Turn” or “Checkerboard Turn”.
With the numerous skyscrapers and mountains located to the north and its only runway jutting out into Victoria Harbor, made for very deceiving and tricky weather and wind conditions frequently too, as you can imagine.
Landing the runway 13 approach was already difficult with normal crosswinds since even if the wind direction was constant, it was changing relative to the airplane during the 47° visual right turn. The landing would become even more challenging when crosswinds from the northeast were strong and gusty during typhoons. The mountain range northeast of the airport also makes wind vary greatly in both speed and direction. From a spectator’s point of view, watching large Boeing 747s banking at low altitudes and taking big crab angles during their final approaches was quite thrilling. Despite the difficulty, the runway 13 approach was nonetheless used most of the time due to the prevailing wind direction in Hong Kong.
Due to the turn in final approach, ILS was not available for runway 13 and landings had to follow a visual approach. This made the runway unusable in low visibility conditions.
The airport was home to Hong Kong’s international carrier Cathay Pacific, as well as regional carrier Dragonair, freight airline Air Hong Kong and Hong Kong Airways and also home to the former RAF Kai Tak as well.
The History Channel: “Most Extreme Airports” deemed Kai Tak International Airport as one of the most dangerous airport in the world. They ranked it as number six most dangerous in the world because the airport was surrounded by high rise buildings and the vicinity is surrounded by rugged mountains.
Less than 10 km to the north and northeast is a mountainous range with altitudes of 2,000 ft or 610 meters high. To the east of the runway, the hills are less than 5 km away and to the south of the airport there lies Victoria Harbor, and south of that is Hong Kong Island containing a mountain up to 2,100 ft or 640 meters high.
Kai Tak was located on the west side of Kowloon Bay in New Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Kai Tak, as it was often referred to, or as the Hong Kong International, until 6 July 1998, when it was closed and replaced by the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok. Chek Lap Kok Airport is built on a man-made island Island in Victoria Harbor.
It is known as Hong Kong Kai Tak International Airport or more often simply Kai Tak, to distinguish it from its successor which is often referred to as Chek Lap Kok Airport. Now-a-days folks speak of the memories more fondly of Kai Tak and the Checkerborad on the side of the mountain, rather than cussing it like in days passed.
When Kai Tak closed there was only one runway in use, numbered 13/31 and oriented southeast/northwest (134/314 degrees true, 136/316 degrees magnetic). The runway was made by reclaiming land from the harbor and had been extended several times since its initial construction. The runway was 3,390 m long when the airport closed.
At the northern end of the runway, buildings were as high as six stories just across the road. The other three sides of the runway were surrounded by Victoria Harbor. The low altitude maneuver required to line up with the runway was so spectacular that some passengers claimed to have glimpsed the flickering of televisions through apartment windows along the final approach.
The actual story of Kai Tak started in 1922 when two businessmen Ho Kai and Au Tak formed the Kai Tak Investment Company in order to reclaim land in Kowloon for development. The land was acquired by the government for use as an airfield after the business plan failed.
In 1924, Harry Abbott opened The Abbott School of Aviation on the piece of land. Soon, it became a small grass strip airport for the RAF and several flying clubs which, over time, grew to include the Hong Kong Flying Club, the Far East Flying Training School, and the Aero Club of Hong Kong which exist today as an amalgamation known as the Hong Kong Aviation Club. In 1928, a concrete slipway was built for seaplanes that used the adjoining Kowloon Bay which can be seen in old photographs. The first control tower and hangar at Kai Tak were built in 1935. In 1936, the first domestic airline in Hong Kong was established.
During World War II Hong Kong fell to the Japanese in 1941 and just after they expanded Kai Tak, using many Allied POW laborers to build concrete runways, 13/31 and 07/25. Many POW diary entries recall the grueling work and long hours working on building Kai Tak. During the process, its construction destroyed the historic wall of the Kowloon Walled City, as well as the 45 m (148 ft) tall Sung Wong Toi which was a memorial for the last Song dynasty emperor, for materials.
A 2001 Environmental Study recommended a new memorial be erected for the Sung Wong Toi rock and other remnants of the Kowloon area before Kai Tak.
In 1954 An official plan to modify Kai Tak to a modern airport was released. By 1957 runway 13/31 had been extended to 1664 m while runway 7/25 remained 1450 m; BOAC started flying Bristol Britannia 102s into the airport that year, probably the largest airliner ever to use the old airport.
In 1958 the new NW/SE 2542 m runway extending into the Kowloon Bay was completed by land reclamation. The runway was extended to 3390 m in 1975. In 1962, the passenger terminal was completed.
In 1974 a Instrument Guidance System (IGS) was installed to aid landing on runway 13. The utilization of the airport under adverse conditions was greatly increased.
The overgrowth of Hong Kong in the 1980s and 90s also put a strain on the airport’s capacity. Its usage was close to, and for some time exceeded, the designed capacity. The airport was designed to handle 24 million passengers per year but in 1996, Kai Tak handled almost 30 million passengers, plus 1.56 million tons of freight, making it the third busiest airport in the world in terms of international passenger traffic, and first in terms of international cargo throughput. Moreover, clearance requirements for aircraft takeoffs and landings made it necessary to limit the height of buildings that could be built in Kowloon. While Kai Tak was initially located far away from residential areas, the expansion of both residential areas and the airport resulted in Kai Tak being within residential areas. This caused serious noise pollution for nearby residents. A night curfew had been imposed from midnight to 6:30 AM and that restriction also hindered operations.
In the late 1980s, as a result, the Hong Kong Government began searching for alternative locations for a new airport in Hong Kong to replace the aging Kai Tak airport. After deliberating regarding a number of locations that would including the south side of Hong Kong Island. As a result the government determination was to build the airport on the island of Chek Lap Kok, just off Lantau Island. A huge number of resources were mobilized to build this new airport, part of the ten programs in Hong Kong’s Airport Core Program.
The closure of Kai Tak airport is somewhat sad and its Legacy will remain for all time.
The new airport officially opened on 6 July 1998 and Kai Tak was subsequently closed, transferring its ICAO and IATA airport codes to the replacement airport at Chek Lap Kok.
After 77 years of breathtaking landings, the final entries made in the control tower log book were simple, short and un-ceremonial: On 6 July 1998 at 01:28, after the last aircraft departed for Chek Lap Kok, Kai Tak was finally retired as an airport.
The passenger terminal was demolished at Kai Tak in January 2003 and many aviation enthusiasts were upset at the demise of Kai Tak because of the unique runway 13 approach. Because private aviation is no longer allowed at Chek Lap Kok; all general aviation has been moved to Sek Kong Airfield. Some aviation enthusiasts had lobbied to keep around 1 km of the Kai Tak runway for general aviation, but the suggestion was rejected as the Government had other plans to build a new cruise line terminals at Kai Tak in Kowloon Bay.
By, JRHafer, aviation writer