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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong’s inner-city runway

By Janice Lam 20 August 2021

Header image courtesy to @hkpenguinchan (via Instagram)

When it comes to Hong Kong airports, one might instantly think of the International Airport at Chek Lap Kok, with a chic, modern appearance representing the prosperous city. But the old airport—Kai Tak Airport—along with Lion Rock Hill behind it, remains a staple in every classic Hong Kong image and a gem in every Hongkonger’s heart. Plane bellies and loud noises overhead became a symbol of life in East Kowloon thanks to the perilous descent that Kai Tak Airport demanded of its incoming aircrafts. Despite having been torn down, its reputation as one of the most dangerous airports in world history still persists, and Kai Tak Airport remains an important vessel of collective memory in Hong Kong. Let us now fly through the glorious life of Kai Tak Airport!

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Taking off: The beginning of an era

The tale of Kai Tak began in the 1910s when businessmen Ho Kai and Au Tak opened Kai Tak Investment Company and bought the area that would later become the renowned airport. The company’s development plan had eventually fallen through, leading to the government acquiring the land for airfield development. Many thought the airport was named to commemorate the business partners who started it all, but the title of the airport actually came from the name of the land, which was Kai Tak Bund. Not as sentimental as we had hoped, but still, a pretty cool fact, right?

After struggling financially for a few years and eventually becoming the base of the Royal Air Force, the Far East Flying School—the first of its kind in Asia—was founded in 1934, sparking a brand-new chapter of civil aviation at Kai Tak and in Hong Kong. In 1936, the first domestic airline was officially established when Imperial Airways (now known as British Airways) started flying services to and from Hong Kong. In 1939, the first runway completed construction. Soon after, the runway was expanded under Japanese rule, using materials taken from Sung Wong Toi and the wall of Kowloon Walled City. It grew to become the infamous “Runway 13/31.”

Kai Tak Heart Attack: Runway 13/31

Runway 13/31 was once known as the most dangerous runway in history, and was the reason why Kai Tak Airport was ranked one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The two numbers were derived from the calculated angles for taking off and landing on the runway—yes, you read it right, “runway” in singular form, as the routes for take-offs and landings were so close in distance they were practically the same runway.

By now, you might be wondering, what is the “Kai Tak Heart Attack”? As the airport was surrounded by residential buildings and mountains, it was impossible to use autoland. Instead, pilots had to switch to manual control as they descended, and adopt the notoriously difficult “checkerboard approach” to land at Kai Tak: taking a sharp turn immediately upon seeing Checkerboard Hill, a hill next to the airport which displays a checkered flag signalling the pilot to steer, while being in close proximity to the ground—a heart-attack-inducing nightmare for many pilots.

This approach was so onerous that it was used as part of training programmes for pilots around the world, and a rule was made that only experienced pilots were allowed to land on Runway 13/31.

Planes preparing to land on Runway 13/31 were hazardously close to residential buildings and pedestrian roads. It was said that passengers could easily see the activities conducted by residents on rooftops, and even peer into homes through building windows. As for civilians on the ground, there was a saying that when one stood on the roof, they could “knock down an aeroplane with a laundry pole.” Due to the perilous landing condition, the government had to set a 13-storey building height restriction across Kowloon. Although the design of the runway posed a threat to residents nearby, it has also created the bizarre illusion of a plane flying in between buildings, a unique and iconic sight that has won the hearts of many aerophiles.

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Busy airport makes a lifestyle

In 1958, Kai Tak Airport had its name officially changed to Hong Kong International Airport, by which time, the main runway had been taking 36 to 38 planes every hour—way over its designated capacity. In 1996, Kai Tak Airport was named the third busiest airport in the world, serving 29 million passengers in a year, and the busiest in terms of international cargo throughput, dealing with 1.56 million tons per year.

Being the busiest airport, the noise pollution in vicinal neighbourhoods was severe, recording up to 100 decibels every day. Citizens recalled in interviews that the engine sounds were so deafening that schoolteachers had to pause in the middle of class and wait for a plane to pass. The government implemented noise abatement policies to combat the issue, which included a flight curfew from 11.30 pm to 6.30 am. Despite the disturbances, the noises had become a part of life in East Kowloon, with some residents commenting that life had become “too quiet” after Kai Tak Airport closed.

The busy flow and vicinity to residential buildings made Kai Tak the ideal environment for airliner spotting. With a variety of plane models and good photography viewpoints, aviation lovers were attracted to fly in from all around the world to observe and take photos of planes, standing on Checkerboard Hill, the airport lookout, and even in the middle of pedestrian roads nearby.

Lights off, curtains closed

Due to ageing and the unfavourable conditions at Kai Tak Airport, the government began looking at a replacement plan in the early 1990s, which resulted in the construction of the current Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok. Finally, in 1998, the new airport opened, and Kai Tak Airport took its bow. At 11.38 pm on 5 July 1998, Dragonair KA814 made the final landing on Runway 13/31; at 12.02 am on 6 July, Cathay Pacific CX251 made the final commercial take-off; and finally, the remaining planes at Kai Tak finished setting off for Chek Lap Kok at 1.28 am.

Richard Siegel, then-director of civil aviation, concluded his farewell speech with the moving words, “Goodbye Kai Tak, and thank you,” and turned off the lights along the runway as a ceremonious gesture, and Hong Kong Kai Tak International Airport was officially retired.

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Kai Tak’s lingering legacy

In spite of the emotional send-off, Kai Tak was reactivated for a month to aid cargo operations during Chek Lap Kok’s rocky start. Then, before the airport terminal was demolished in the 2000s, it temporarily housed government offices, automobile dealerships, showrooms, and other recreational facilities. The airport has made an appearance in numerous notable local productions, like The Greed of Man (大時代; daai6 si4 doi6) and Internal Affairs II (無間道II; mou4 gaan1 dou6 ji6), and films such as The Night My Number Came Up. It has even served as the stage for the Hong Kong stop of Celine Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love Tour” in 1999!

There used to be seven roads in the Kowloon City district named after plane models, though only two of the names, Concorde Road and Dakota Drive, are still in use today. The Regal Meridien Hong Kong Airport Hotel is still standing, under the new name Regal Oriental Hotel.

After the demolishment of the airport, the land was used mainly for residential and recreational developments. Several housing estates were built, including Kai Ching Estate and De Novo; the rest of the land went into the designated area for the government’s cruise terminal and sky garden plans. In May 2021, Kai Tak Sky Garden was opened to the public with nostalgic nods to the airport, with the numbers 13 and 31 boldly marked at the two ends, recreating the look of the iconic Runway 13/31.

Other than redevelopment of the land, the exhilarating experience of flying over and landing at Kai Tak Airport has also been made into simulation experiences, such that the memory can be shared with generations born after the closure of Kai Tak Airport. While many of us have not been able to see the living glory of Kai Tak Airport, the impact it has on Hong Kong and even worldwide aviation history is evident, and the deep love for Kai Tak is shared by generations of Hongkongers.

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Janice Lam

Editorial intern

A passionate writer, a curious learner, a pineapple enthusiast—these are just some of the identities Janice has taken up. In her free time, you can usually find her in her room obsessing over a new show, making a new playlist, or getting lost in her thoughts. When she’s in the mood, she can spend an entire day walking around a neighbourhood, searching for inspiration and food.

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