Heralded as the sixth most dangerous in the world, Kai Tak served as Hong Kong’s airport from 1925 till 1998.
Landings over densely populated Kowloon were spectacular and involved a complicated last-minute manoeuvre known in the piloting community as a ‘Hong Kong turn’ or ‘checkerboard turn’, after the checkerboard reference point above Kowloon Tsai Park (still visible now – click for some eerie close-up shots).
In 1925, Kai Tai was a simple grass-strip airfield which served the British RAF and enthusiasts from the Hong Kong Aviation Club (which still exists today).
By 1928, a concrete slipway was constructed for seaplanes…
The first control tower and hangar at Kai Tak were built in 1935. In 1936, the first domestic airline in Hong Kong was established.
The shot below from 1939 shows a Lufthansa flight, flying between Berlin and Tokyo, carrying a swastika on its tail fin…
As Hong Kong fell to the Japanese during WWII, Allied prisoners of war labourers were put to work, creating two new concrete runways. The work involved long hours and gruelling work.
Cathay Pacific was founded in 1946 by American Roy Farrell and Australian Sydney de Kantzow.
A master plan for the expansion of Kai Tak was approved in June 1954. The new runway would be constructed by reclaiming land from the harbour.
By 1957 runway 13/31 had been extended to 1,664m while runway 7/25 remained 1,450 m long. In 1958, a new NW/SE 2,542m long runway extending into the Kowloon Bay was completed by land reclamation.
The photo below shows a temporary control tower used during the redevelopment works between 1958 and 1962.
And Air Traffic Control in the 1960s.
Take-off in 1969.
S landing in the 1970s (in German – Hong Kong footage from around 6:30).
The airport saw a number of incidents over the years. The deadliest was a US Marines Hercules flight which plunged into the harbour shortly after take-off in 1965 killing 59. Twenty-four passengers were killed during a typhoon landing in 1967 and, in 1993, a China Airlines Boeing dramatically overshot the runway during a typhoon, though there were no fatalities.
By the 90s, booming Hong Kong was outgrowing Kai Tak’s limited capacity. The airport was designed to handle 24 million passengers per year but, by 1996, Kai Tak was handling 29.5 million passengers, plus 1.56 million tonnes of freight, making it the third busiest airport in the world in terms of international passenger traffic.
Night flight curfews, Kowloon building restrictions, pollution and noise forced the colonial government to seek an alternative location to replace the ageing airport.
A new airport at Chek Lap Kok, Lantau opened on July 6th, 1998. Meanwhile, at Kai Tak, a small ceremony celebrating the end of the airport was held inside the control tower after a final Cathay flight from Kai Tak to Chek Lap Kok took off. A speech was given, and the controller’s famous last words as he switched off the runway lights were “Goodbye Kai Tak, and thank you”.
Private aviations activities were relocated to Sek Kong Airfield. The Kai Tak passenger terminal was later used for government offices, automobile dealerships and showrooms, a go-kart racecourse, a bowling alley, a snooker hall, a golf range and other recreational facilities. It was demolished in 2004. Click here for a ‘Farewell Kai Tak’ YouTube documentary, and another one here about its closure.
Kai Tak is now a sports hub and cruise ship terminal…
Behold an epic montage of successful – and a few very hairy – landings at Kai Tak.
Pictorial histories of local landmarks and events…
- A Brief Visual History: HK Police Vehicles & Uniforms.
- A Brief Visual History: HK’s Old Airport, Kai Tak.
- A Brief Visual History: Kowloon Walled City.
- A Brief Visual History: The Evolution of the Hong Kong Skyline.
- A Brief Visual History: The Peak Tram.
- A Brief Visual History: The Peninsula Hotel.
- A Brief Visual History: Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower.
- A Brief Visual History: Yau Ma Tei Theatre.