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 3 of 4)
Leung won a scholarship to Australian Aviation College in Adelaide through a program jointly sponsored by Cathay Pacific Airways, Swinburne University of Technology, and the Government Flying Service. But despite growing its cadet rolls, the club has lost 30 percent of the members it had before the airport closed—many of them British subjects who returned home after mainland China took over Hong Kong in 1997, as well as the pilots and aviation workers who no longer stop by for a drink after landing a jumbo or leaving their office. “About 25 percent of the social members are out, and many of the expatriates are gone,” says club manager Chris Lau. “All of the former airport workers are gone.”
The club counts 500 full members who each pay an entrance fee of $4,166. Some members resist the changes—the push to expand services to non-members—and nothing can really replace the loss of a vital, exciting airport that once surrounded the club. Some of the remaining members would rather drink to the memories of the past. “There is a faction that wants [the club] bulldozed rather than opened to the public,” says Dunnaway.
“A lot of the [airline] pilots used to radio that they would walk around to meet us at the aviation club bar,” says former Kai Tak air traffic controller John L. Wagstaff, who transferred to the new airport. “The inner circle in the old tower was a more homey feel. It’s not the same at Chek Lap Kok, because of the sheer size and the long commute home.” Wagstaff worries that general aviation cannot survive the development: “Only money speaks, and in Hong Kong land is money.”
To help recapture a small part of the magic, the club’s long-term plans include an aviation-themed complex designed by Dunnaway that would be combined with the aircraft tie-down area. A Cathay Pacific DC-3, which now hangs in the Hong Kong Science Museum, would be one of the attractions. The restaurant, the 13/31 Lounge, would memorialize Kai Tak’s infamous runway, which treated jumbo jet pilots and passengers to a hair-raising approach that scarcely skirted the tops of surrounding apartment buildings.
On the descent to Runway 13 was a visual navigation aid above the airport known simply as the checkerboard, an orange and white pattern that was painted on a concrete-faced slope in 1973. It loomed large in the windscreens of jumbo jets that once flew at its sheer rock face at nearly 200 mph and 675 feet above Kowloon City, often while being buffeted by Hong Kong’s subtropical air masses. There was no time to glance at instruments; just before the checkerboard, pilots sighted Runway 13 out their right windows and turned their Concordes, Boeing 747s, or Airbus 300s 47 degrees hard right.
Other airports have final approaches that can be visually flown, says Cathay Pacific Airways general flying manager Andrew Maddox, who flew Boeing 747s from Kai Tak. “But I am not aware of any other that had the combination of factors resulting in the degree of difficulty associated with [Runway] 13.” Once they were over the runway and abeam of the aviation club, airline captains flared their jets, then stood on the brakes to avoid coming to rest in Kowloon Bay—a fate that, on average, befell at least one airliner a decade.
Flying out of Kai Tak was no less challenging and depended on tower controllers forcing airliners to remain at their gates until adequate taxi space cleared. With departure and approach corridors limited by the mountainous terrain, precise timing was the key.
“We had two 90-degree turns between the holding point and the runway threshold,” says Phil Parker, who spent 12 years working in Kai Tak’s control tower. “It takes up to one minute for a loaded 747 to line up, then one minute to get airborne. Meanwhile an aircraft flying 180 knots on final has gone six nautical miles. If a landing jumbo missed the approach just as another departed, the two flew in trail between mountains for six miles dead ahead through the Lei Yue Mun Gap. All we needed was one runway length between the departure and the landing to be legal.”