20 years ago today, on a warm July evening just after midnight, the lights at one of the world’s most famous airports were dimmed and shut off for the final time; heralding the end of a spectacular era in jet aviation. If you’d told Wilbur and Orville Wright that one day gigantic aircraft carrying upwards of 300 passengers would swoop in at less than 500ft over the packed streets of downtown Hong Kong, they’d probably think you were mad.
But that’s what Hong Kong’s former international airport was; mad!
Packed into a tiny parcel of land and expanded gradually outward into the waters of Kowloon Bay on man-made land reclamation, Kai Tak was an airport which became a victim of its own success. It was the main gateway to Asia’s World City and became the busiest single-runway airport on earth, but this came at the price of its inevitable decline and closure. In order for Hong Kong to expand, its airport needed to expand, and such a task could not be accomplished at Kai Tak.
Twenty years later though, and the memory of Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport still resonates in the minds of both aviation enthusiasts and the general public. Whether you actively follow aircraft and are fascinated by the concept of flight, or if you’re an Average Joe who doesn’t know the front of a plane from the back, the sight and sound of massive jet airliners screaming in over densely populated apartment blocks and city streets is enough to make the hairs on anyone’s spine tingle.
Kai Tak, like Princess Juliana, Lukla and Madeira, was part of the visiting experience.
So where did Kai Tak airport come from?
The original idea of introducing an airfield to Hong Kong started way back in the infancy of aviation itself, when in 1912 two businessmen Ho Kai and Au Tak formed the Kai Tak Investment Company as part of a scheme to reclaim land in Kowloon for future developments. The land was reclaimed, but their attempt at creating new developments on the site failed to materialise. As such, the Hong Kong government bought the land and put it to use as an airfield.
The Kai Tak airfield originally consisted of a grass strip located on the shores of Kowloon Bay, sandwiched between the water and the densely packed streets of the ancient Walled City. The formative years of the airport were slow, with major growth only occurring following the opening of the Abbott School of Aviation in 1924 by Harry Abbott; an early aviation pioneer. Very soon the RAF had begun operations at the airfield and expanded its facilities to cope with the increased demand, followed later by a variety of flying schools which included 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.
A concrete slipway was built in 1928 to allow seaplanes and flying boats, such as the Shorts Sunderland and the Supermarine Southampton to taxi onto the land for disembarking and maintenance. With the rise in aviation came further expansion to the airport, and in 1935 the first control tower was built at the site. This was followed a year later by the launch of Hong Kong’s first domestic airline. By this time, however, the airport was already being served by a multitude of early carriers, including Imperial Airways from Britain and several other colonial airlines.
Expansion of Kai Tak airport, however, didn’t truly take off until the outbreak of World War II; though this expansion came at a high price paid in blood.
On December 8th, 1941, forces of the Empire of Japan launched a massive strike against the colonial powers of southeast Asia, including Hong Kong. The battle began approximately four hours after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, with Japanese forces, who had occupied mainland China since 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, shelling the city with artillery. Allied forces comprised of British Imperial troops from the UK, Canada and India, as well as free Chinese factions and a volunteer contingent, were powerless to stop the Japanese assault and after three days the battle was over. British forces, who had become stranded on Hong Kong Island, surrendered and the Japanese occupied the city.
Now with the city under their control, the Japanese could use it as a base in order to strike out against Allied resistance in southern China and French Indochina. As such, expansion of the city’s airport was needed in order to base fighters and bombers. Utilising slave labour, comprised of Allied prisoners-of-war (POW) as well as members of the local population, two concrete runways were built on reclaimed land in Kowloon Bay. Runway 13/31 was directed southeast parallel to the shore, while 07/25 faced east-northeast.
In order to build this expansion to the airport, however, hundreds of lives were lost as prisoners were worked to death in the unbearable heat of the Hong Kong sun. Beaten, starved or arbitrarily executed, the number of people who were killed expanding the airport has never been truly determined. The cost wasn’t just in human lives, but also in Hong Kong’s historical artefacts. The historic wall of the Kowloon Walled City, which dated back to the Song Dynasty of around 960AD, was destroyed to provide building materials, while a memorial for the last Song dynasty emperor, the 8-year old boy Emperor Zhao Bing, which had stood since the 13th Century was also levelled.
Eventually, once the expansion was complete, the Imperial Japanese Air Force used the airport as a base, allowing them aerial domination throughout the next three years of occupation. In the end, as the tide turned in favour of the Allies, the Japanese unconditionally surrendered on August 6th, 1945, following the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; concluding a brutal occupation which had seen thousands of ethnic Chinese and Allied prisoners murdered.
Following the departure of Japanese forces, the airport was redesignated HMS Nabcatcher, a Royal Navy shore base from September 1945 to August 1946. In September 1946, a group of Australian aviators established what would become Hong Kong’s flag carrier; Cathay Pacific. The airline, using a fleet of Douglas DC-3’s, began operating freight services between Hong Kong and Shanghai, but soon expanded to a multitude of destinations as well as branching out into passenger flights.
The Royal Navy maintained a presence at Kai Tak, forming a Royal Naval Air Station at the airport in 1947 named HMS Flycatcher. This would gradually diminish over time as the presence of the Royal Navy in Hong Kong was reduced. Eventually, the only British air force presence in the Hong Kong region was the nearby Shek Kong Airfield, which was operated under the auspices of the RAF.
In light of the city’s growing economy, it was only natural that the airport would see expansion. This was given further incentive through the proposal to introduce larger airliners including turboprops, like the Bristol Britannia 102, and jets, such as the pioneering de Havilland Comet. Expansion work began in 1954 to extend Runway 13/31 out into Kowloon Bay on a man-made peninsula. Eventually, Runway 13/31 was expanded to 5,459ft long while 07/25 was left undeveloped. The expanded runway opened in 1957, but work on accommodating increasingly larger aircraft wasn’t finished yet. With the prospect of the upcoming Boeing 707 on the cards, Kai Tak lengthened Runway 13/31 to 8,350ft. This extension opened in 1958, just in time for the launch of the 707 with Pan American Airways and their Clipper services across the Pacific. It was during this period that Runway 07/25 was closed and the land it once occupied was redeveloped for other uses.
By the early 1960’s, Kai Tak had become one of the most important centres for aviation travel in southeast Asia. With diplomatic ties having been severed between the Western powers and communist China, as well as colonial nations such as Vietnam and Burma gradually gaining their independence, Hong Kong, as well as Kai Tak, was seen as a safe haven; the last bastion of Western influence in southeast Asia. To cope with the increasing demand, the iconic, white terminal building was constructed along the airport’s northwest perimeter and Runway 13/31 was expanded yet again in 1970 to 11,130ft; in preparation for the arrival of the mighty Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet. This extension was completed in June 1974, but the full length of the runway was not put into use until December 1975, as construction of the new Airport Tunnel had kept the northwestern end of the runway closed.
However, Kai Tak’s position had meant that the airport was left in a curious position when it came to operations, especially with large jets such as the Boeing 747.
Kowloon is situated on a small area of floodland at the foot of giant peaks which pass to the north, forming a long arc that travels from southeast to northwest. As such, a conventional approach to Runway 13 was not possible due to the presence of the towering, 1,500ft Beacon Hill less than 2 miles from the strip. As such, aircraft approaching from this direction had to come in from across the Lai Chi Kok district and over downtown Kowloon at a bearing of 088 degrees before making a sharp, 47 degree right-hand bank at less than 1,000ft to line up with the runway. Departing Runway 31 was essentially the same principle but in reverse, with aircraft having to perform an immediate left-hand bank in order to avoid Beacon Hill.
Runway 31 arrivals and Runway 13 departures were basically the same as any other airport; a long, unobstructed approach out over Kowloon Bay.
The result was spectacular, as gigantic airliners swept in over the city streets, their wings seemingly only feet away from the rooftops of densely stacked apartment blocks. For years, the city streets echoed to the sound of Rolls-Royce, Pratt and Whitney and General Electric engines as they soared overhead, becoming one of the most dazzling attractions of the city. Nowhere else could you find commercial airliners in such close proximity to a central business district, let alone performing a sharp right-hand bank at less than 1,000ft!
However, one of the biggest issues to face Kai Tak was the adverse weather Hong Kong is frequently subjected to. Typhoons and freak storms often batter the area, making what was already a difficult approach even harder to manage. The result was the installation of an Instrument Guidance System (IGS) in 1974 to aid Runway 13 landing, which resulted in a huge improvement to air traffic during poor weather. This was accompanied by the creation of a large board on the side of a nearby hill known as Lion Hill. This red and white navigational aid, affectionately dubbed ‘The Checkerboard’, was used as a visual aid for pilots approaching Runway 13 and became a prominent feature of the area.
As the years passed and Hong Kong’s economy grew, Kai Tak became the main gateway into this vibrant city. However, the increasing demands of the city began to cause problems as the airport simply had no further room to expand. Even when the airport was in its infancy it could not be extended onto the land due to the presence of existing city streets. Further land reclamation, while a viable option, was ruled out due to it being cost prohibitive, and the construction of a second runway couldn’t be done as the approach alley for planes landing Runway 13 was very narrow. Tall buildings had sprouted up either side which limited any extra capacity, while the preclusion of high rise developments on the flight path led to conflicts between the airport authorities and developers.
By 1990, Kai Tak was by far the busiest single-runway airport in the world, with most of its traffic comprising of large airliners such as the Boeing 747, Lockheed Tristar, DC-10 and many more. Passenger numbers had increased to upward of 20 million per annum and nearly 2 million tonnes of freight passed through each year; making it the third busiest airport on earth in terms of passenger numbers.
With options becoming increasingly limited, there was no other choice than to close Kai Tak and start afresh. It was eventually decided in 1989 that an airport would be built on the island of Chek Lap Kok; 15 miles west of Hong Kong in the Zhujiang River Estuary. Studies as to the feasibility of constructing an airport at this location had actually been considered as early as 1974, with plans being tinkered and altered throughout the 1970’s and 80’s until eventually a final development scheme was adopted. This scheme involved an airport with two runways, larger terminal facilities and a direct high speed train and highway link with downtown Hong Kong.
Kai Tak was now on borrowed time, with the estimated completion of the new Chek Lap Kok airport being 1998. In the meantime, Kai Tak continued to strain under increasing demands as more airlines and flights operated to and from the field. Noise pollution meant a curfew from midnight to 06:30 was issued, hindering overnight operations for both passenger and freight flights. However, as the threat of closure loomed ever greater throughout the 1990’s, Kai Tak entered into something of a renaissance, with appreciation for this unique airport drawing thousands of tourists to the city just so they could see for themselves the unbelievable sight of gigantic commercial airliners sweeping in low over the city streets.
The end eventually had to come, and it did so on July 6th, 1998. Over the preceding weeks, equipment had been gradually fed to the nearby completed Chek Lap Kok airport; including supplies, vehicles, containers and machinery. This left only equipment essential for the day-to-day operations of Kai Tak on site when the final day came.
Throughout July 5th, operations seemingly went on as normal with no indication that in less than 24 hours the airport would be silenced forever. The only abnormal thing was the thousands upon thousands of people who had flocked to the rooftops of apartments and car parks, and to perimeter fences, to get their last glimpses of the famous Checkerboard Approach. Residents hired out their balconies for a nominal fee and some even threw private parties as the hours of that warm summer Sunday ticket slowly by. Kai Tak and its unique situation had become ingrained in the public conciseness of Kowloon. For many, the presence of 747’s landing only feet above their heads was all they’d ever known, thus the idea of the sound of turbofan engines being silenced from their streets must’ve have struck them as a surreal prospect.
Day turned to night, and flights continued to fly in and out as the final hours closed in. Eventually, at 23:38 on July 5th, the last aircraft to ever perform the legendary Checkerboard Approach made its way into Kai Tak, that being Dragonair flight KA841 from Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport; an Airbus A320. The streets of downtown Kowloon echoed to the roar of plane engines for the last time.
The last scheduled flight from Kai Tak departed 20 minutes later at 0:02 on July 6th, that being Cathay Pacific CX251 to Heathrow Airport; a Boeing 747-400.
Over the next hour, the remaining off-duty aircraft were ferried the short distance to Chek Lap Kok, the final aircraft to depart from Kai Tak International Airport being Cathay Pacific CX3340 at 01:28; an Airbus A340-300.
Kai Tak had fallen silent, and with a profound final statement by Richard Siegel, then-director of civil aviation, he gave the sombre last words “Goodbye Kai Tak, and thank you”, before dimming the lights briefly and then turning them off.
Hong Kong’s original, unique and spectacular international airport had come to its end.
The work wasn’t done yet though, as in a massive move all throughout the morning of July 6th, the remaining essential equipment was ferried by road and barge across the city to Chek Lap Kok; one of the biggest logistical movements in the city’s history.
Such was the haste in replacing Kai Tak, however, that many of the features at the new airport weren’t ready in time for opening or developed early faults. Water supply and sewers were not installed completely, telephones were installed but the lines were not connected, and the baggage system did not undergo extensive troubleshooting; resutling in passenger baggage as well as cargo, much of which was perishable, being lost. The government decided to temporarily reactivate Kai Tak’s cargo terminal to minimise the damage caused by a software bug in the new airport’s cargo handling system.
So, what became of Kai Tak?
The iconic passenger terminal was later reused for government offices, automobile dealerships and showrooms, a go-kart racecourse, a bowling alley, a snooker hall, a golf range and other recreational facilities, but was eventually demolished between December 2003 and January 2004. While attempts were made by enthusiasts to spare 1km of Kai Tak’s runway for general aviation purposes, this was rejected by the government and all structures on the site were levelled by 2006.
Today, the former runway has been converted for use as parkland and as a cruise ship terminal, although there are still great swathes of the former apron which have yet to be redeveloped; now gradually returning to nature.
One wonders what may eventually sprout up from the dust that was once the world’s busiest single-runway airport.
Contrary to the inherent difficulty of the Runway 13 approach, and the fact that only a select group of specially trained pilots could be allocated to fly it, Kai Tak proved itself to be quite a safe airport when you consider the very few accidents that occurred during its operational life.
The most prominent form of accident at Kai Tak was due largely to the adverse weather conditions of the airport, with aircraft getting lost and either flying into mountains or crashing into the sea. This was the case for the first fatal accident at Kai Tak which took place on January 25th, 1947, when a Philippine Air Lines DC-3 crashed into Mount Parker; killing four crew members.
The deadliest accident at Kai Tak, however, happened on August 24th, 1965, when a United States Marine Corps C-130 Hercules crashed shortly after takeoff from Runway 13, killing 59 of the 71 people on board.
Another notable crash was that of a Thai Airways International Sud Aviation SE-210 Caravelle III on June 30th, 1967, which crashed into Victoria Harbour while trying to land during a torrential rainstorm. The co-pilot, who was in command, was unable to find the runway in the deteriorating conditions and eventually, after making an abrupt heading change, crashed into the harbour to the right of the runway. 24 were killed though only 23 bodies were recovered; the last being found 6 weeks later floating in the bay.
On October 18th, 1983, a Lufthansa Boeing 747 freighter abandoned takeoff after engine no. 2 malfunctioned, probably at speed exceeding V1 (the takeoff/abort decision point). The aircraft overran the runway onto soft ground and sustained severe damage. The 3 crew onboard suffered only minor injuries.
On August 31st, 1988, the right outboard flap of a CAAC Hawker Siddeley Trident operating Flight 301 hit approach lights of Runway 31 while landing under rain and fog. The right main landing gear then struck a lip and collapsed, causing the aircraft to run off the runway and slip into the harbour. 7 were killed.
Perhaps the most notable crash at Kai Tak airport took place on November 4th, 1993, during a typhoon; where China Airlines Flight 605, a brand new Boeing 747-400, overran the runway and crashed into the bay; resulting in 23 injuries. The aircraft landed over ⅔ of the way down Runway 13 and was unable to stop in time, with the pilots being blamed for having not diverted to a different airport like other preceding flights. In order to allow operations to resume, the vertical stabiliser of the 747 was blown off using dynamite before the entire airframe was recovered and towed to the nearby cargo terminal. A write-off, the aircraft was used as a fire training rig before eventually being scrapped sometime in the mid-1990’s.
The final accident to occur at Kai Tak took place on September 23rd, 1994, when a Heavylift Cargo Airlines Lockheed L-100-30 Hercules lost control shortly after takeoff from Runway 13 when the pitch control system of one of its propellers was said to have failed. 6 of the 12 aboard were killed.
Nevertheless, Kai Tak was by far and away one of the most unique and thrilling airports in the entire world. While it was fundamentally flawed by its situation and there truly were no other options but to close it when demand completely outweighed capacity, you can’t deny that the airport became an icon of Hong Kong. Throughout its life, the airport symbolised many parts of the city’s history; from being a symbol of Japanese oppression, to a symbol of the city’s future, to a symbol of the city’s past.
Kai Tak, even after 20 years, still holds a place in the hearts and minds of aviation enthusiasts across the globe; not just those who were alive to witness its magnificence, but also a new generation who can relive classic scenes from its long and illustrious history through the thousands of videos and pictures taken during its lifetime.
Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International Airport may be long gone, but its memory is immortal. 🙂