Whoosh! Remembering Kai Tak, Hong Kong’s controversial airport
This July marked the 20th anniversary of the closing of Hong Kong’s old international airport, Kai Tak, a facility famous for the eye brow-raising views it provided passengers as their planes landed or took off amongst the apartment buildings of Kowloon City.
Passengers had a bird’s eye view into the lives of regular Hong Kong residents, who could be seen watching television or preparing their dinner, as Boeing 747s glided past apartment buildings at close range.
The airport, famous for its one runway and an approach path loved by some pilots and not others, was renowned around the world by plane spotters.
Not a common sight elsewhere. Kai Tak became something of a city symbol, known to travelers worldwide. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown)
Over 73 years, since the airport opened (1925), Kai Tak established itself as one of a kind: one of the world’s busiest hubs, as well as one of the largest cargo airports, deep in the heart of a major modern metropolis.
But on July 6, 1998, the lights at Kai Tak were turned off for good, making way for its modern replacement, Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) on the island of Chek Lap Kok, far away from Kowloon’s residential high rises.
A Boeing 767 on final approach to Kai Tak Airport (1998). (Photo by Ywchow)
Mind the washing
Qantas Airways Airbus A330 Captain Geoff McInnes shared his memories of flying into Kai Tak.
“The most famous approach was coming in on runway 13. As we would be coming in, we’d be looking for what was called the checkerboard which was a set of markings on the side of a hill approaching the airport.
“Once you were lined up with the checkerboard, then you would see the runway lights and need to take a sharp right turn to line up with the runway.
“We were flying very close to buildings. You could see people’s washing and while there was still a safe distance it sometimes looked like the wingtip was almost touching peoples’ clothes lines.
“It was one of the most interesting and challenging aircraft approaches given the nature of the low level descending turn – one of the very few times this was allowable in a heavy jet with passengers. It was just great fun.
“Passengers sitting on the right side of the aircraft would have the best view, they’d walk off the aircraft with their eyes wide open.”
Qantas Wunala Dreaming Boeing 747 approaching Kai Tak Airport. (Photo by Daryl Chapman)
Pilots would only be rostered to operate in Hong Kong after undergoing simulator training on the specific checkerboard approach. Strong winds could also add further complication, as would the fact that Hong Kong was one of the busiest and most congested airports at the time.
Kai Tak was a hub for Hong Kon's flagship airline Cathay Pacific. (Photo by Manuel Ceneta)
Today, Kai Tak has been reopened as a cruise ship terminal and its replacement, Chek Lap Kok is recognized as one of the best airports in the world.
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