There will never be another airport like Hong Kong’s Kai Tak

Society & Culture

Kai Tak Airport closed on July 6, 1998. It was one-of-a-kind, requiring pilots to be specially certified in order to make hair-raising landings amid mountains and high-rises.

A plane soars over Hong Kong's now-closed Kai Tak Airport

This Week in China’s History: July 6, 1998

After cruising at 30,000-plus feet, the Boeing 747 now dipped below 6,000 feet, with a rocky tropical archipelago spread out beneath. The jumbo jet’s fuel supply was dwindling after a dozen hours in the air. Continuing to descend, the plane was now surrounded by green peaks on three sides. It was headed straight for the mountains at nearly 300 miles per hour.

The pilot needed to slow down quickly to avoid the mountains, but to stay in the air it needed to maintain its speed. The problem seemed insoluble: now less than 1,000 feet off the ground with a mountainside quickly filling the windshield. At what seemed the last instant, the pilot banked sharply to the right and down, slinging the 300 passengers through a 47-degree turn at some 200 miles per hour, the mountains whipping past the windows. The maneuver prevented the plane from slamming into a peak, but now, apartment buildings seemed close enough to touch. Passengers reported being able to see what people in the apartments were watching on TV!

The plane emerged from its turn and leveled off just 150 feet above crowded city streets, still descending. Moments later, streets turned to runway. A puff of smoke from the tires and the plane was on the ground.

Welcome to Hong Kong.

For all the pilot’s heroics, there was no medal or citation forthcoming: just another landing at Kai Tak Airport, which closed on this week in China’s history, July 6, 1998.

The landing I just described was remarkable, but typical. Most of Hong Kong’s air traffic made this landing on runway 13/31, using what was often called the “checkerboard approach,” because the mountainside that pilots aimed for in order to line up with the runway had an enormous white and orange checkerboard pattern painted on it. (Technically, this approach was to runway 13, as it would be designated when approaching from this direction, with the designation 31 referring to approaches from the runway’s opposite end, if the wind direction called for it.) Now fading, the checkerboard is the subject of a campaign to make it an historic landmark.

Kai Tak operated from the 1920s until 1998. Its roots were in a failed business development, the brainchild of Sir Kai Ho Kai and Au Tak. When their plan to build housing on reclaimed land off of Kowloon failed in 1912, the site was identified as suitable for an airfield just as aviation was developing as a technology.

In 1925, the first grass landing strip opened, used by the RAF and a local “aviation club.” A decade later, a control tower and hangar were built. In March 1936, the first commercial flight landed at Kai Tak, an Imperial Airways flight from Penang (with service connecting on to Singapore and eventually to London). In the 1930s, the famed “Clipper” seaplanes of Pan Am flew between San Francisco and Hong Kong, docking at concrete slips adjoining the Kai Tak runways.

Hong Kong’s growth after World War II coincided with the spread of commercial aviation. The runway that gave Kai Tak its identity — the one described at the outset — was built in 1958, the same year that Kai Tak was officially designated Hong Kong International Airport. The first passenger terminal was built in 1962.

It may be in 1970, though, that Kai Tak acquired its legendary status. On April 11 of that year, the first 747 arrived in Hong Kong, and for decades photographers and planespotters had a spectacular view of the behemoths making high-performance maneuvers amid the apartment blocks and verdant peaks of the city. Pilots required special certification and training to be qualified to land their planes at Kai Tak, one of the reasons why despite the dangerous, complex approach, accidents were rare (one of the only commercial crashes during approach was a 1993 China Airlines 747 that skidded off the end of the runway after landing in a typhoon, resulting in 23 injuries and no deaths).

By the 1990s, Kai Tak was among the world’s busiest airports: in the top three for passengers and number one for cargo. For a time, runway 13/31 and its checkerboard approach was the busiest single runway at any airport in the world.

But the airport’s success could not continue indefinitely. Once far from the center of the city, Kai Tak was now surrounded by tall buildings. The risk of catastrophic loss of life loomed ever larger. The tight quarters not only prevented any possible expansion but also limited the airport’s hours. Curfews to limit noise restricted flights to the hours between 6:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m.

These limitations suggested a clear solution: a new airport. The new site at Chek Lap Kok, an island in the archipelago that was coincidentally just about where pilots could pick up the checkerboard when approaching Kai Tak, was chosen. Far from population centers, approaches could be mostly over water, and land for expansion was ample. After a decade of planning and evaluating different possible sites, construction began in 1991. The completion date of January 1998 was moved up a year in order to precede the retrocession of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic in 1997, but that goal was not met.

On July 5, 1998, the last flights made their way into and out of Kai Tak. A Dragonair A320 made the last checkerboard approach at around 11:30 pm. Just after midnight, a Cathay Pacific 747 bound for London was the final scheduled departure. Around 1 a.m., a brief ceremony turned out the lights on Kai Tak airport. A convoy of airport vehicles made its way to Chek Lap Kok.

The new airport opened officially the next day — although it had already welcomed a handful of official planes, including Air Force One carrying U.S. President Bill Clinton — several days earlier. The “HKG” designation that Kai Tak had carried since 1958 was transferred over to the new airport with its (at the time) largest passenger concourse in the world.

The new airport struggled with glitches for months, but within a year had achieved its goal of providing a modern, efficient, even glamorous port of entry for the territory. It became one of the world’s busiest — and best — airports.

Hong Kong’s new airport has paralleled the fate of the territory, not surprising since its opening. Built to provide more access and greater movement, the airport is now the doorway to a changed city. It was certainly the case in the 2010s that new arrivals from the United States or Europe found the airport more familiar than did those coming on mainland flights. Pro-democracy demonstrators occupied the terminal several times in the summer of 2019, canceling more than 150 flights as they exploited the airport’s status as a gateway.

It is hard not to look back at Kai Tak now as a symbol of what made Hong Kong unique. Kai Tak was in many ways like Hong Kong itself. Geographically remarkable and logistically unlikely, both existed on the barest of margins, yet not only survived but thrived. For a time. Ultimately, existence as a small promontory surrounded by political and physical pressures doomed Kai Tak. Are we now seeing the same process play out in the city it once served?

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.