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.

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THE FLOOR OF THE ARRIVALS LOUNGE AT THE FORMER KAI TAK AIRPORT displays a sign that reads “No Waiting,” but a dozen people still loiter. Not to greet passengers—the last one landed five years ago—but for the guard at the Kowloon East Job Training Centre to call the next applicant. Nearby, the counters that once faced a crush of impatient travelers checking in for Cathay Pacific flights now serve the Kai Tak Bowling Club, while downstairs, car buyers kick tires in a showroom converted from a baggage claim.

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Vacationers and business travelers now fly from the new Chek Lap Kok International—which opened in 1998 and is 45 minutes away and nine times larger than Kai Tak.

Near the golf enthusiasts who tee off on a driving range upon the abandoned concrete of Runway 13 and the shoppers strolling through the open-air rummage sales are the stubborn members of the Hong Kong Aviation Club, still in place in their Nissen hut despite the changing fortunes of Kai Tak. The club goes back 80 years; it may have lost an airport but not the passion to fly. Because Chek Lap Kok is closed to most private pilots, the club now operates its six Cessnas and an aerobatic Slingsby Firefly from nearby Shek Kong military airfield, but only on weekends, and always subject to the goodwill of the People’s Liberation Army. One or two club aircraft are often available for instrument navigation practice at perpetually foggy Macau International Airport—which, in addition to having atrocious weather and no accessibility from Hong Kong by anything other than hydrofoil or aircraft, is increasingly hostile to general aviation because of increased commercial traffic. Only the club’s four helicopters, a restaurant, and the Aero Club Bar remain in operation at Kai Tak, and yet the slowly eroding former airport is the club’s best hope of continued operation.

Outside the Aero Club Bar, Hogan Loh ties down a Robinson 44 helicopter. He squints up at the construction cranes and skeletons of the high rises being built across the airport’s formerly flat expanse, then at the Kai Tak terminal. “There must be something on this airport worth preserving,” he says. “We could make it a shrine to the old Kai Tak.” Loh pauses to consider. “Well, why not...‘shrine’? That spirit is lacking in the second generation.”

Loh is a past president of the aviation club, as well as the honorary secretary of the Hong Kong Air Cadet Corps, a civilian organization that is jointly sponsored by the government flying service, club members, and local universities and is headquartered on club property. A squadron of Loh’s cadets can be found marching just outside the old terminal, following a peeling line on the ramp that once guided the nosewheels of Boeing 747s. Younger cadets take seats in an old departure lounge to hear an instructor lecture on lift and drag, his chalk squeaking on a blackboard.

Whenever a club aircraft can leave the ground, Loh asks the flier to offer a seat to a cadet. “We want the club to be Hong Kong’s aviation development center,” Loh says. “We plan to have a bachelor’s degree program by 2005.” Loh envisions 12-year-old cadets going on to earn an academic degree, get aviation career training, and then become dues-paying club members.

On this hazy Saturday, with a few hours’ notice, the Army has again canceled all the club’s flying slots at Shek Kong, grounding the cadets for another day. After he’s done tying down the Robinson, Loh nods to the pilots playing cards on the wicker seats. “ ‘We persevere’ is our motto,” he says.

More disappointment lies ahead. The caretakers of the terminal will toss out the cadets by New Year’s, along with the bowlers, car buyers, job seekers, shoppers, and squatters. The demand for living and business space in downtown Hong Kong is one of the reasons Kai Tak ceased operations. Overwhelming pressure to close the field had been applied years before the last airliner landed here, on July 5, 1998. On that flight—Dragonair no. KA841 from Chongqinq, China—the pilot flew the approach over the steel skeletons of new office towers, their construction halted at the maximum height allowable under the landing path. That night, a 24-hour construction effort began raising the towers to 20 stories, as if to add exclamation points to the permanence of Kai Tak’s end. Now the terminal will be knocked down to yield even more land for development, the centerpiece of which is a 15-year Chinese government project to provide 260,000 housing units.

“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.

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