Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Kai Tak Airport was the international airport of Hong Kong from 1925 until 1998. It was officially known as the Hong Kong International Airport from 1954 to July 6, 1998, when it was closed and replaced by the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok, 30 km to the west.[1] It is often known as Hong Kong Kai Tak International Airport or simply Kai Tak, to distinguish it from its successor which is often referred to as Chek Lap Kok Airport.

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. With numerous skyscrapers and mountains located to the north and its only runway jutting out into Victoria Harbour, landings at the airport were infamously difficult.

Kai Tak was located on the north side of Kowloon Bay in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The vicinity is surrounded by rugged mountains. Less than 10 km to the north and northeast is a range of hills reaching an altitude of 2,000 ft (610 m). To the east of the runway, the hills are less than 5 km away. Immediately to the south of the airport is Victoria Harbour, and further south is Hong Kong Island with hills up to 2,100 ft (640 m).

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 harbour 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 rose up to six stories just across the road. The other three sides of the runway were surrounded by Victoria Harbour. 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.

Closure and Legacy of Kai Tak Airport
The new airport officially opened on 6 July 1998. In a testament to logistical planning, all essential airport supplies and vehicles that were left in the old airport for operation (some of the non-essential ones had already been transported to the new airport),were transported to Chek Lap Kok in one early morning with a single massive move. Kai Tak was subsequently closed, transferring its ICAO and IATA airport codes to the replacement airport at Chek Lap Kok.

On July 6, 1998 at 01:28, after the last aircraft departed for Chek Lap Kok, Kai Tak was finally retired as an airport. After 77 years of breathtaking landings, the final entries made in the control tower log book were simple, short and un-ceremonial:

* The last arrival: Dragonair KA841 from Chongqing (A320-200) landed runway 13 at 23:38
* The last departure: Cathay Pacific CX251 to London Heathrow (A340) took off from runway 13 at 00:02

A small ceremony celebrating the end of the airport was held inside the control tower after the last flight took off. A small speech was given, and the controller's last words as he switched off the runway lights were simply, "Goodbye Kai Tak, and thank you".

The passenger terminal was later used for government offices, automobile dealerships and showrooms, a go-kart racecourse, a bowling alley, a snooker hall, a golf range and other recreational facilities. Government reports later revealed that Chek Lap Kok airport was not completely ready to be opened to the public despite trial runs held. Water supply and sewage were not installed completely. Telephones were available but the lines were not connected. The baggage system did not undergo extensive troubleshooting and passenger baggage as well as cargo, much of which was perishable, were lost. The government decided to temporarily reactivate Kai Tak's cargo terminal to minimize the damage caused by a software bug in the new airport's cargo handling system.

The runway was used as a venue for Celine Dion's January 25, 1999 concert on her Let's Talk About Love Tour. Between December 2003 and January 2004, the passenger terminal was demolished.

Many aviation enthusiasts were upset at the demise of Kai Tak because of the unique runway 13 approach. As private aviation is not allowed at Chek Lap Kok (moved to Sek Kong Airfield), some 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 planned to build a new cruise terminal at Kai Tak.[15]

The name Kai Tak is one of the names submitted by Hong Kong used in the lists of tropical cyclone names in the northwest Pacific Ocean.

Runway 13 approach
Layout of Kai Tak Airport prior to its 1998 closure
The "Checkerboard Hill" , which was a major navigational aid for the Runway 13 approach, as seen from Kowloon Tsai Park.

The landing approach using runway 13 at Kai Tak was spectacular and world-famous. To land on runway 13, an aircraft first took a descent heading northeast. The aircraft would pass over the crowded harbour, and then the very densely populated areas of Western Kowloon. This leg of the approach was guided by an IGS (Instrument Guidance System, a modified ILS) after 1974.

Upon reaching a small hill marked with a checkerboard in red and white, used as a visual reference point on the final approach (in addition to the middle marker on the Instrument Guidance System), the pilot 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 (300 m) when the turn was made. Typically the plane would enter the final right turn at a height of about 650 feet (200 m) and exit it at a height of 140 feet (43 m) to line up with the runway. This maneuver has become widely known in the piloting community as the "Hong Kong Turn" or "Checkerboard Turn".

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 aeroplane 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.

Runway 31 approach

Landings on runway 31 were just like those on other normal runways where ILS landing was possible. Since the taxiway next to the runway would have been occupied by aircraft taxiing for takeoff, landing traffic could only exit the runway right at the end.

Runway 31 departure
When lined up for takeoff on runway 31, Lion Rock and Mt. Parker would be right in front of the aircraft. The aircraft had to make a sharp 65-degree left turn soon after takeoff to avoid the hills (a reverse of what landing traffic would do on Runway 13).

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