Hair Raising Landings: The Story Of Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport

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Hong Kong was settled long before aircraft and air travel existed. Nestled comfortably between the South China Sea and the hilly terrain of the Chinese coastline, Hong Kong was already a densely populated area before airports were a foundational aspect of large urban centers. Before its current airport on Chek Lap Kok island, there was Kai Tak. With its runway given the nickname “Kai Tak Heart Attack”, the airport was well known among pilots and passengers for its hair raising approach.

Kai Tak airport arrival
Kai Tak has been superseded by Chek Lap Kok Airport. The Kai Tak area is now used as a cruise terminal. Getty Images

The beginning of Kai Tak

According to Atlas Obscura, Kai Tak was built in 1925 on reclaimed land in Kowloon Bay, opposite Hong Kong Island. Surrounding the airport were three elements less-than-ideal for aircraft landings: mountainous terrain, water, and eventually tall apartment buildings.

The airport was first used as a flying club and a military airfield but, post-WWII, it was converted to be a base for ‘national’ airline Cathay Pacific. As the city and its airline continued to grow in the post-war period, a new runway was built in 1958. Jutting out into Victoria Harbor, the “Kai Tak Heart Attack” ensured that pilot skills remained sharp while testing the resolve of passengers looking out the window.

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Kai Tak airport arrival
A vintage photo showing a Boeing-Stearman biplane on the ground with a Singapore Airlines jet landing behind it. Photo: Getty Images

What was so ‘hair-raising’ about it?

“Kai Tak was one of the last major airports in the world where you really had to rely on basic flying skills—‘stick and rudder’—and we were all a bit sad when it closed,” –Captain Dave Newbery via Atlas Obscura

If an aircraft was cleared to land on Runway 13/31, it would have to do the following:

  1. Begin its approach across the busy Victoria Harbor and the densely populated area of Kowloon.
  2. Veer right upon seeing “Checkerboard Hill”—an orange-and-white painted marker above a park. This 47-degree turn would be at low-altitude, and at a speed of roughly 200 miles per hour, approximately two nautical miles from the runway.
  3. Fly over apartment buildings and busy streets to finally, touch down on Runway 13/31.
Clearly, landing at Kai Tak was a test of piloting skills on the best of days. However, the true test of one’s skills would take place during less-than-ideal weather conditions.

“I was flying into Kai Tak with my wife on the jumpseat. The weather was pretty awful, and halfway through the turn onto finals, a vicious rainstorm came across the airfield and I totally lost sight of the runway. I had to execute a missed approach, which was quite hard work.” –Captain Dave Newbery via Atlas Obscura

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The victims of Kai Tak

Receiving large passenger jets for decades, it’s no surprise that the airport and its challenging location claimed a few aircraft over time. According to The Daily Mail, the airport suffered 12 air disasters, killing a total of 270 people. Close to its 1998 closure, the airport was handling nearly 30 million passengers per year.

The deadliest single incident involved a US Marines Hercules flight. The aircraft plunged into the harbor shortly after take-off in 1965. As a result, 59 passengers on board the aircraft were killed. Just two years later, 24 passengers were killed during a typhoon landing in 1967. Then, in 1993 a Boeing 747 overran the runway – this was also during a typhoon.

Kai Tak crash
A China Airlines 747 sits in the water after skidding off the runway at Kai Tak airport, November 1993. Foul weather and a slippery runway caused by Tropical Storm Ira forced the passenger jet to skid and plunge into the sea. There were no fatalities. Photo: Getty Images

Conclusion

It’s clear from our older readers (some of whom were pilots) that Kai Tak had a special place in commercial aviation. While it was probably despised by several insurance companies, plane spotters and pilots alike would have immensely enjoyed this unique approach.

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Kai Tak airport arrival
Dense urban areas surrounded Kai Tak Airport. Photo: Getty Images

The airport finally closed in 1998 and gave way to the Hong Kong International Airport on Chek Lap Kok we are now familiar with today. This new airport seems to have issues of its own these days.

Still, Kai Tak has a special place in Hong Kong (and aviation) history and is well-remembered through the stunning photos taken over the past decades.

Did you ever fly into Kai Tak airport? Share your experiences in the comments! We’d love to hear about them.

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