HISTORY – A Brief Visual History of HK’s Old Airport, Kai Tak 30

Heralded as the 6th most dangerous in the world, Kai Tak served as HK’s airport from 1925 till 1998…

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Courtesy Daryl Chapman, flickr.com/photos/darylchapman

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 today – click for some eerie close-up shots)…

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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…

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Kai Tak in the 1930s, via Gwulo.com

The first control tower and hangar at Kai Tak were built in 1935. In 1936, the first domestic airline in Hong Kong was established.

Click for source

Tally-ho! The Pride of Detroit at Kai Tak, 1927

The shot below from 1939 shows a Lufthansa flight, flying between Berlin and Tokyo, carrying a charming swastika on its tail fin…

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via SCMP, May 1939

As HK 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.

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Japanese surrender at Kai Tak, 1945, via Wikicommons

Cathay Pacific was founded in 1946 by American Roy Farrell and Australian Sydney de Kantzow…

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DC4 of Cathay Pacific Airways, 1954.

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…

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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…

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The photo below shows a temporary control tower used during the redevelopment works between 1958 and 1962…

Air Traffic Control in the 1960s…

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Kai Tak Airport and Tung Tau Tsuen in 1962, via richardwonghk on Flickr

Take-off in 1969…

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Courtesy Daryl Chapman, flickr.com/photos/darylchapman

And a landing in the 1970s (in German – HK footage from around 6:30)…

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via BenZ-fotos on Flickr

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. 24 passengers were killed during a typhoon landing in 1967 and, in 1993, a China Airlines Boeing dramatically overran the runway during a typhoon, though there were no fatalities…

By the 90s, booming HK 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…

Courtesy Daryl Chapman, flickr.com/photos/darylchapman

Night flight curfews, Kowloon building restrictions, pollution and noise forced the colonial government to seek an alternative location to replace the ageing airport…

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There were only eight boarding gates attached to the terminal building

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”…

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The site today, via keroseneian2003 on Flickr.

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.

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Kai Tak is now set to become a sports hub and cruise ship terminal…

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Possible design of the new cruise terminal

It will open later this year and is designed to clear 3,000 passenger per hour.

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Click to enlarge this artist’s impression. Click here for more diagrams.

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Finally, behold an epic (truly epic) montage of successful – and a few very hairy – landings at Kai Tak. Turn up the speakers and watch through to the end – shit gets real around 2:30…

You may also enjoy: a Brief Visual History of the HK Skyline, a Brief Visual History of Kowloon Walled City or a Brief History of the TST Clock Tower. Click here for historical entries.

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An approach chart used by pilots – click to enlarge

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  • http://twitter.com/seafury10 Paul Montero

    There are some pretty crazy photos. Is the hotel that was attached to Kai Tak still there?

    • Colin Cox

      Yes, that was The Regal Meridien Hotel.

    • http://www.imaging-resource.com/about-ir/the-team/mike-tomkins Mike Tomkins

      Old article, I know, but yes it’s still there; I visited briefly last March. It’s looking very shabby these days, as they clearly (and unsurprisingly) haven’t put hardly any money into it since the airport closed. With the airport gone, there’s also a scar on the front of it where the pedestrian overpass used to attach to the now-demolished airport carpark. But somehow, miraculously, it still remains.

      • Polito

        Any idea what its called nowadays?

        • http://www.imaging-resource.com/about-ir/the-team/mike-tomkins Mike Tomkins

          It’s the Regal Oriental Hotel.


          Incidentally, although the pedestrian overpass is gone, the flyovers are still there and just barricaded off. Not often you see a piece of road in Hong Kong that hasn’t been used in over a decade.

          • Polito

            You’re right, just saw some recent photos of this hotel.. It’s really something!

            Back to Kai Tak. There are plenty of photos of the exterior, it would be great to see old photos of the interior in its heyday.

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  • Colin Cox

    Excellent! As a pilot who flew from Kai Tak with Cathay Pacific, this brought back many fond memories. Thank you Tom and well done on putting this montage together.

  • Fred Pack

    Colin, I felt my “cheeks” tighten when I watched the video. Those IGS approaches demanded all the skill of a seasoned pilot. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. Captain Fred NWA ret.

  • Thalia Helicon

    this is history as it occurred in our lifetime! excellent post.

  • Myron Bredahl

    I was a 707 copilot with Capt “OSHIBORI” flying into HNG. Apollo 10 Commander Tom Stafford was on board. He was invited to the cockpit to watch the approach. Oshibori had me fly the approach so he could point out the sights to Stafford. As we got close in I noticed Stafford got very quiet. On the ground he finally spoke and said ” Damn that was amazing. Do you guys fly that all the time?? I wont forget that for a long time!!” This was coming from a guy that had just gone to the moon and back.

  • Colin Wright

    I can’t believe I used to fly that 13 IGS approach day-in, day-out! A real nostalgic look at Kai Tak.

  • Gerry Fields

    When the lights were switched out at Kai Tak it was Dick Siegel former Airport General Manager and Director of Civil Aviation who did it not a controller as stated.
    G. Fields

  • David Baker

    That brought back a lot of memories! I was a pilot with Cathay for many years and always got a great thrill flying the 13 approach whether in an Electra, CV880, B707, L1011 or B747. Great fun!

    • Andrew Palmer

      David, I am not sure if you remember on 30th June 1981 the new 747 VR-HID had been delivered earlier in the day, it was loading for the inaugurating CX daily service to London. There was a problem with the radio so they had to replace the plane with VR-HKG and due to hours you were the replacement Captain of that flight with Bob Scott as First Officer and Russ Curson (hard to read his signature) Flight Engineer.
      A cardboard print was handed to all passengers with a photo of HKG and all details of its delivery. I still have that print signed by all crew of that flight, and knowing you from the Aero Club you let me spend time up front in the Jump Seat. Doing my flight training in Hong Kong 13 was a great approach as part of my training especially at night in the 152’s.
      Although the new airport is amazing I do miss landing at Kai Tak when visiting HK.
      Regards and thank you for the memories.
      Andrew Palmer

      • David Baker

        Hello Andrew

        Thank you for your email and reminding me of that flight on June 29th/30th 1981. I remember it very well, it was my wedding anniversary and I was called out on stand-by, so I was not popular with the mem sahib!
        However, the flight according to my log-book was in VR-HIC on 29th as far as Bahrain, where my crew and I slipped for crew rest. The next day, June 30th, I flew VR-HKG from Bahrain to London. Bob Scott the first officer flew that leg and the weather in Gatwick I clearly recall was bloody awful, we didn’t see the runway (RW08) until about half a mile out in heavy rain! The flight engineer, whose signature you cannot read, was Russ Stephenson. A giant of an Australian, a lovely man and the sort of guy you would want on your side in a bar room brawl! We had some excellent flight engineers in Cathay, real professionals not just junior pilots killing time to get in the right seat. Russ was one of the best.
        Hope this clarifies things regarding the dates.

        Best wishes

        David Baker

  • Hans Jörg Schweizer

    I was Maintenace Manager for Swissair at Kai Tak from 1978 to 1986. What a great time!

  • Nicholas Cuthbertson

    There was also a crash on 31 August 1988: The right outboard flap of CAAC Flight 301, a Hawker Siddeley Trident hit approach lights of runway 31 while landing under rain and fog. The right main landing gear then struck a lip and collapsed, causing the aircraft to run off the runway and slip into the harbour. 7 were killed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/asoka.raina Asoka Raina

    takes me down memory lane, used to visit Hong Kong , worked for Lufthansa in those days.

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