Remembering Hong Kong’s Scary Kai Tak Airport

fountainhall
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#1 Remembering Hong Kong’s Scary Kai Tak Airport

Postby fountainhall » Fri Jul 06, 2018 11:00 am

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20 years ago today, Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport closed for good; Overnight operations were transferred to the sparkling new airport at Chek Lap Kok off the north of Lantau Island.

The approach to Kai Tak was scary for many. Flying in from the west, on a clear day you could see Hong Kong island on your right. As the approach continued, on the left the aircraft came what seemed perilously close to the hills to the north marked by the famous Lion Rock. There was a strict height limit on buildings on the Kowloon Peninsula in those days since aircraft descended very close to the buildings before making a sharp right turn and within seconds thereafter touching down. A joke that did the rounds in Hong Kong in those days – a joke which many believed to be quite true – led one to believe the Cathay Pacific pilots could tell not only which apartments had their televisions switched on but also the channels to which they were tuned!

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Making that sharp turn, aircraft were very close to the ground. Many times I was on flights when passengers screamed during that turn, certain the aircraft was out of control! Yet few pilots misjudged their approach and had to “go round” for a second attempt.

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Hong Kong was on a blacklist of world airports, but not because of that approach. Originally constructed just after the Second World War and then continually extended, as jumbo jets with their wider wing spans began to fly in to the airport, it was judged that the main taxiway was too close to the runway.

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On the last day of operations 20 years ago, huge crowds flocked all the best viewpoints to get photos of the last flights. When the new airport opened the following morning as a flight from New York landed, the authorities were unprepared for massive problems during its first week. On the first evening, the automatic underground train suddenly stopped mid-way to the end of the terminal. Passengers were stuck for 2 hours and most missed their flights. Computers in the massive automated cargo facility, the largest in the world, failed and vast amounts of fresh produce perished. For a time, many passengers missed the old Kai Tak. But soon the benefits of Chek Lap Kok became obvious. Now a fourth terminal and a third runway are well under construction.

Concorde landing during a chartered round-the-world flight
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Photos above by Daryl Chapman from CNN

https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/ ... index.html

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#2 Re: Remembering Hong Kong’s Scary Kai Tak Airport

Postby Gaybutton » Fri Jul 06, 2018 12:23 pm

fountainhall wrote:Many times I was on flights when passengers screamed during that turn, certain the aircraft was out of control

Weren't passengers briefed about that beforehand, so they would know what to expect?

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#3 Re: Remembering Hong Kong’s Scary Kai Tak Airport

Postby fountainhall » Fri Jul 06, 2018 12:43 pm

In over 200 landings I was never aware of any briefings. Similarly in landing at Paro in Bhutan and my two landings at Kathmandhu there was never a warning about the zig-zag nature of the approaches or the close proximity to mountains.

Kai Tak was doubly different because when landing arriving from the east, it seemed as though you were about to land on water! Another problem for pilots was its alignment. The summer monsoon arrives from the south west. The winter monsoon from the north east. Yet the runway ran from north west to south east. Difficult cross winds to cope with.




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#4 Re: Remembering Hong Kong’s Scary Kai Tak Airport

Postby firecat69 » Fri Jul 06, 2018 4:47 pm

As a private pilot I was in awe the first time I made that approach in an airliner on my first visit to Hong Kong ( I was 20 years old) It scared me to death and I don't remember the hotel I stayed in but watching those approaches from a building that was almost directly in the path did nothing to make me more confident. I had some airline pilot friends at the time who told me no doubt it was the most dangerous major airport in the world but it was the typhoon season the made it really difficult.

During the jet age it was the busiest single runway 13/31 in the world. Just incredible that in context of the difficulties , the loss of life in crashes was not that great. In 1980 I was an Air Traffic Controller in Boston and for years I had tried to get approval for what was called a Fam Flight into Kai Tak. After multiple tries I was finally approved luckily I got a good weather day with medium strength winds . I was in the Jump Seat in the cockpit directly behind the Captain. I was well aware of the skill of the pilots but still sitting there it was dramatic to watch what we called hand fly that airliner ( B707) on that approach. All I could think of was how almost impossible this would be in typhoon winds.

I was not unhappy to see the new airport because Kai Tak was always an airport just waiting for a tragedy . Yet I don't believe there was ever a loss of life in a passenger jet crash. Incredible

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#5 Re: Remembering Hong Kong’s Scary Kai Tak Airport

Postby fountainhall » Fri Jul 06, 2018 7:34 pm

firecat69 wrote:I don't believe there was ever a loss of life in a passenger jet crash. Incredible

I believe you are correct. I can remember driving in one morning from my home in the New Territories (as they were then called). It was raining quite heavily but certainly no typhoon. As the airport came into sight, I was amazed to see a 747-400 belonging to Taiwan's China Airlines half submerged at 90 degrees to the runway. China Airlines did not have a good reputation in those days and the pilot had landed too far along the runway. No one was killed and the few injuries weren't serious. The new aircraft was a write-off, though.

As firecat69 rightly points out, it was the typhoons that made landing especially difficult. Many airlines diverted their aircraft to Guangzhou, Taipei and later Macao. But Cathay Pacific pilots seemed to have less trouble landing in such conditions. The year before the airport closed, I was working in Singapore. After that job was finished, I had a late afternoon Cathay flight to Hong Kong. The previous evening warnings had been issued that a typhoon was getting very close and that flights might have to be cancelled.

Throughout the next day, it was announced that Singapore Airlines was cancelling its afternoon flights and European carriers were diverting. I had no desire to spend a night at an alternate city (Kai Tak had a curfew from 11:45 pm until about 6:00 am) and so i checked the local CX office almost hourly. Each time I was told my flight would take off as planned. Eventually the lady must have got a bit pissed off at my constant enquiries. "Don't worry, sir. Our pilots are trained to land in typhoons!" And the landing from the west was indeed amazingly smooth.

The new airport cannot boast such a clean record. I was waiting for a 7:30 pm flight to Bangkok a year after it opened to register my apartment purchase the following day. A small typhoon was in the vicinity. The rain was incredibly heavy but the winds only moderate. A China Airiines MD11 came in to land, caught a strong gust of wind, the right wing touched the runway, snapped off and the plane turned over then slid to a halt on its back. A major fire quickly broke out and everyone watching this unfold feared that many lives would be lost. Thanks in part to the speed of the emergency services and also the heavy rain, the fire was contained and only three passengers on a very full burning aircraft died.


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#6 Re: Remembering Hong Kong’s Scary Kai Tak Airport

Postby Asia Traveler » Fri Jul 06, 2018 9:28 pm

I remember a landing in the 80’s on CAAC flight coming from Beijing where the aircraft touched down on the left wheel and began to rotate before the pilot got it down on the other wheel, The fellow next to me grabbed onto my arm in terror. We were coming back from a US Trade Mission to the PRC. Those Hong Kong landings were amazing. Landing in China was also a bit alarming as in those days the Military would board arriving flights with rifles while paper work was checked before deplaning was allowed. One armed soldier would stand in front of plane and look over the passengers while someone else was inspecting the paperwork. I assume they did it to all flights but can not say for sure. I was on Air Pakistan out of Tokyo Haneda (no Narita yet). By the time PanAm began to fly to Beijing that had stopped. Those were the days when steam engines were in regular service in China for long haul routes. They would decouple the electric engine outside of Beijing and hook up the steam engine for rest of the trip. What an amazing story that country is. So far so fast.

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#7 Re: Remembering Hong Kong’s Scary Kai Tak Airport

Postby gerefan » Sat Jul 07, 2018 5:31 am

I used to go to school in Kowloon just underneath the final turn, only about a mile from Kai Tak.

That's why I ended up a life time flying both privately and Professionally. Thank you Kai Tak!

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#8 Re: Remembering Hong Kong’s Scary Kai Tak Airport

Postby fountainhall » Sat Jul 07, 2018 5:48 pm

For my first almost 8 years in Hong Kong my office was on the 20th floor in a building at the bottom of Percival Street across from the Yacht Club. Looking out of my window I had an amazing view from The Peak right across to Kai Tak. Many’s the time I’d watch aircraft making their way towards Lion Rock and then the turn on to the runway. It was fascinating and amazingly relaxing! Considering I could have had a view of the back of another building, I felt so lucky.


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