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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.

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!”

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.

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