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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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.”

Indeed, all of crowded Hong Kong seemed to have some relationship to the airport. Beneath the checkerboard a miniature golf course once taunted putters with a foot-high Great Wall of China. In the midst was a navigational localizer, while nearby, elderly people participated in a morning tai chi class. The landing aids and mini-golf are gone, but the checkerboard remains a potent symbol to planespotters like Parker, who often mixed business with pleasure. “I’d clear them to land, then pick up my camera,” he grins.

Loh also laments losing the drama of Kai Tak’s legendary approach. He points out the weeds sprouting from the checkerboard, which is today crumbling under the constant movement of the hillsides. “There’s no purpose for it now,” he says.

Luckily for the club, most of the heavy development plans for the airport are focused on Kai Tak Point, which is at the opposite end of the runway from the club. Among the potential additions are an IMAX theater, 50,000-seat stadium, two hotels, a hospital, 28 schools, and a cruiseship terminal with helipad. One group of astronomy enthusiasts wants a 100-story observatory, and the Hong Kong tourism board may build replicas of Chinese junks to sail by the former runway.

Every new deal or development plan seems in some way to threaten the club’s future. In January, Disney’s Michael Eisner, martial arts actor Jackie Chan, and Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa broke ground for a new Disneyland on Lantau Island, where Chek Lap Kok International is located. Both Loh and controller Phil Parker predict that Disney fireworks—which would be directed over water and into one of general aviation’s only areas open for unrestricted visual flight rules—will necessitate new limits for club fliers and cadets.

In addition to the hoped-for aviation playground, there is hope for a proposed aviation museum where Oriental Golf City has taken root on the runway. Loh and Dunnaway’s efforts are aimed at helping the museum become a reality; doing so bolsters their chances of keeping the club’s buildings standing. But Loh scoffs at the museum’s chances: “That’s many, many years down the road if at all,” he says.

Months before Chek Lap Kok opened, the Hong Kong Historical Aircraft Association built a replica of Charles Van den Born’s Wanda and flew it from the new airport’s vast runways. The aircraft was then hung from the ceiling in the new terminal, a placement that Cliff Dunnaway thought was permanent. “Last year the airport marketing staff told me an airplane didn’t fit their vision for a retail experience, and wanted it out,” he says.

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