Last Stand at Kai Tak
When the old order changed in Hong Kong, it made way for a new set of problems for a historic aero club.
- By Roger A. Mola
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
Roger A. Mola
(Page 2 of 4)
“Things disappear overnight in Hong Kong,” says aviation facilities consultant and club member Cliff Dunnaway, who manages the Hong Kong Historical Aircraft Association’s modest collection. Dunnaway designed a Kai Tak postage stamp issued the day the field closed, and would draft any future—and right now, unlikely—design for an expansion of the aviation club grounds. Dunnaway worries that the present grounds will be seized by the government as a work yard for construction of a rail station starting this year. “There’s no push to preserve things,” Dunnaway says. “The government tried to close the club by charging commercial rent of more than $83,000, despite its heritage.” Only because of an application to have the club’s Nissen hut declared a historic landmark and the political connections of various members was the rent hike averted.
Dunnaway and Loh are charter members of the provisional aviation development council, a loosely knit group of club members and cadet officers trying to secure tax relief and development concessions—largely through behind-the-scenes political arm-twisting—aimed at preserving some of Hong Kong’s 92 years of aviation history. “Our government can still bulldoze you down if they don’t think you’re important enough,” Loh says.
The history Loh and Dunnaway wish to commemorate began in 1911, when aviator Charles Van den Born arrived from Belgium. He was bearing three crated Farman biplanes and hoped to fly from the only clear, flat patch available—a racetrack on Hong Kong island—but permission was denied. Instead, he dug in at Sha Tin, remote tidal flats nearby. On March 18, 1911, one of his Farmans—which he had dubbed Wanda—became the first aircraft to fly in Hong Kong.
The first commercial landplane flew from Kai Tak in 1936, and later that year, 4,000 spectators watched Juan Trippe of Pan American Airways splash down off Kai Tak in a Martin M-130 flying boat as he mapped out Far Eastern routes for his expanding airline. The next year Trippe instituted weekly service to Manila, with connections to San Francisco, in a Sikorsky S-42B flying boat that her crew called Myrtle. On Sunday morning, December 8, 1941—across the international dateline from Pearl Harbor—Myrtle was sunk at her moorings when 36 Japanese fighters smashed Kai Tak in a surprise attack. The airport’s first two hard-surface runways—which were later abandoned—were constructed by prisoners of war under Japanese control.
Flying clubs of various stripes have been in place at Kai Tak since 1924, when two Chinese businessmen, Ho Kai and Au Tak, formed the Kai Tak Land Investment Company to drain the waters off Kowloon for housing. They raised the land but not enough cash. The fledgling Hong Kong Flying Club leased 60 acres of the new land and planted a grass field of 900 by 1,200 feet for a pilot school and a clubhouse. Nearby, the club set up moorings for flying boats.
The Far East Flying Training School, which had been operating before World War II, reopened after the British reoccupied Hong Kong, and the school expanded operations to 800 students and 50 instructors. In 1962, a typhoon—ironically named Wanda—decimated the school’s hangars and wrecked its aircraft. The Aero Club of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Flying Club—which combined in 1982 to form today’s Hong Kong Aviation Club—took over pilot training, and by 1982 had graduated more than 6,000 students.
Last year, in an effort to expand business, the club opened its ground school to non-members. Within 48 hours, 29 students signed on. Because of daunting fuel and insurance costs, introductory flights run $345 per hour. With the help of the Government Flying Service—the descendant of the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force, which provides search and rescue, firefighting, and patrol—the Corps has mushroomed to 2,200 cadets between the ages of 12 and 18, plus 400 adult officer cadets, all of whom will soon be able to gain rotary-wing training in the club’s Robinson helicopters.
If Loh’s vision is realized, the club will continue its tradition of helping new pilots into the sky. “When I was very young, my uncle used to bring me to Kai Tak every single weekend,” says 18-year-old cadet Jimmy C.M. Leung. “At that time I imagined how exciting it would be to pilot the aircraft by myself—and the time soon comes!”