#TBT: Remembering Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport

Jul 27, 2017

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Kai Tak Airport, which served as the international airport for Hong Kong from 1925 until 1998, was perhaps most famous for its insanely close aircraft approaches and hair-raising takeoffs and landings. With a runway that started at the edge of Kowloon City and extended out to sea, planes literally flew between high-rise buildings at an altitude of no more than 1,000 feet as planes came in for landing on runway 13.

Cathay Pacific Airways Douglas DC-3 at Kai Tak Airport in 1959. (Image courtesy of Cathay Pacific Airways Limited, Swire HK Archive Service)
A Cathay Pacific Douglas DC-3 at Kai Tak Airport in 1959. Image courtesy of Cathay Pacific Airways Limited, Swire HK Archive Service.

Pilots who have flown through this airport will be familiar with the insane series of maneuvers on approach — crazy enough for it to be ranked the sixth most dangerous airport in the world by The History Channel show, Most Extreme Airports. On approach, pilots would fly towards Lion Rock Hill, otherwise known as Checkerboard Hill — a nod to the orange-and-white checkerboard painted on its side — which marked the start of the infamous 45-degree Hong Kong turn, flying over Kowloon City towards the runway. This video of a Malaysia Airlines 747 shows just how intense this approach was:

The same level of craziness also extended to departures from the other end of the runway. Planes taking off from runway 31 had to make a sharp 65-degree left turn to avoid the very same Checkerboard Hill. When wind conditions led to runway changes — specifically from runway 13 (away from the hill) to runway 31 (toward the hill) — planes that were loaded to maximum payload had to return to the terminal to offload goods in order to provide enough climbing clearance over the Kowloon City buildings.

Today, Kai Tak is home to two residential estates and a new cruise terminal that opened on the tip of the former runway in 2013. When Kai Tak closed in 1998, travelers began flying out of Chek Lap Kok International Airport (HKG), located on a different island, west of Hong Kong. Still, the orange and white checkerboard and runway markings are still visible, reminding us of its glorious heyday.

Featured image courtesy of Ullstein Bild via Getty Images.

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