Kai Tak, the old Hong Kong Airport

Kai Tak

When I first went to live in Hong Kong, in 1998, the old Kai Tak airport was still in operation. Dating from the dawn of aviation, the airport had grown from an airstrip in Kowloon to one of the busiest airports in the world. And most memorably, by the end the main airstrip was built right in Victoria Harbour!

With the prevailing wind coming from the south-east, most take-offs and approaches were done facing Hong Kong Island: facing across the water. So if you overran on landing... splash. If you didn't get up enough speed on take-off... splash. And the approach from the north was through the middle of the city, literally right between the skyscrapers. It's absolutely true, you could see people's washing hanging on their balconies as you flew past their window on final approach.

The city lived in the expectation that some day it would all go horribly wrong, and a plane would land in the middle of Kowloon. Thankfully that day never came, and the airport is now safely relocated to Chek Lap Kok. It's further out of town, but joined by a high-speed train to Kowloon and Central.

Many people still rather miss the old airport though, and here's an email someone sent to my Dad, about a retired airline pilot reminiscing about the good old, scary old days.

I make no claim on copyright of either the text or pictures; they are simply reproduced here for interest. In fact the pictures were originally embedded in the email, but here I have redone them as links to the original site, Airliners.net. It's worth clicking to check out the original high-res pictures.


Alan Moore, May 2005


The Old Hong Kong Airport

Normally, at the bottom of an ILS approach, (Instrument Landing System) you are looking for a runway. This was long before we could trust the autopilot for an "Auto-Approach" hook up, so you always hand flew it.

This ILS approach guides you right to the top of a hill, not the runway. If you did a good job flying the ILS all the way to "minimums" you got to see that checkerboard panel in photo #3. If you dropped below minimums in bad weather, you got to die right on the tippy top of the mountain!!

The drill was to fly to minimums, (the hilltop) and then crank it over into a hard right turn and dive for the runway. There was usually a cross wind, which explains some of the other pictures. It was pretty easy to drag a wing tip, or an outboard engine. Some of the lucky ones got both outboard engines, the first at impact (photo # 8) and the second trying to recover from the first engine strike. (photo #9) And you couldn't cheat by going below glide slope or turning in early because of all the tall buildings downtown.

And if the approach wasn't enough fun, note that the runway is short. More than one went off the end, or the side, and into the bay.

Missed approach? See those hills? Yep, another hard right turn and climb, baby, climb!

The weather was usually not clear. Clouds were the norm, with fog or mist, and sometimes heavy rain. It's tropical there. There was an approach to the other end of that single runway. It wasn't much better. More hills and the "missed approach" was a hard left turn to avoid hitting the tall buildings and checkerboard mountain!

The new airport is almost easy. There are still the hills all around the bay, but at least the ILS takes you to pavement. And you don't have to look up at the people in the higher floors. You don't really appreciate flying in America until you have flown out of it. Washington National is a piece of cake by comparison. There were some airports in South America that were almost the equal of Hong Kong. Did I mention what braking was like on a rainy day on that short runway? Or the huge puddles that formed because the airport was sinking, and no one would spend any money because they were building the new airport?

Photos # 1 and # 2 were taken from the high rise balconies . ( I never quite had time to take a look back photo from the cockpit here. ) Sort of like driving thru midtown Manhattan to Times Square!!!

No autopilot stuff here...hand fly that sucker, and don't screw up!!! The prayer: "Lord, if I'm gonna die...please don't let it be pilot error."

At ILS "Minimums" you break out of the clouds at the top of a hill!!! First one to see it calls "Checkerboard in sight!!"

Now...hard right turn and dive!!! And don't mess around, or you simply won't make it!! Is that a short runway or what!!

Woe to you if you're too high!!!

Strong crosswinds were common...so you had to "crab" all the way to the runway!!!

Sometimes the crosswinds were stronger than other times...

Overshoot and you're in the drink...kick it out of the crab too soon, and you're blown back off the runway...wait too late and "crunch"...# 4 engine!!!

Overreact on the crab correction, and "Crunch" # 1 engine!!!

Don't "float" or try to make a smooth landing Just put it on!!! "Firm" landings help dissipate energy, and help you stop!!!

Drop too low, and you'll drag your wheels thru the high rises!!!


What I said was: "I think we're a little high and fast...but that was a nice smooth touchdown, Sir!"

Some days you earned your pay more than others!!! Back then I could not imagine doing anything else for a living...for forty years!!! Viet Nam did help put it all in perspective though...and made this seem easy. At least nobody was shooting at you from these high rises!!

Ah...Yes, we were all so young then... and fearless!! And the older we got the more cautious we became!!! And where has the time went? I remember thinking...Wow, ten more years to retirement...and now it's been ten years since retirement!!

Back then my goal was to retire without scratching an airplane! Today I'm happy not to scratch my car turning into my own driveway!!


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