Approaching Kai Tak on a Boeing 747: A Pilot’s Perspective

Approaching Kai Tak on a Boeing 747: A Pilot’s Perspective

DALLAS — In a recent post, Airways paid tribute to one of the most iconic airports, Kai Tak, one that sadly doesn’t exist today and whose approach was nothing but adrenaline, risk, and emotion.

While several posts on the airport itself are easily accessible today, there aren’t many that let you experience how it was to actually fly the Kai Tak approach from a pilot’s eye.

As part two of the Kai Tak publishing, Airways chats with Captain Obet Mazinyi about his time back in the day shooting multiple approaches into Kai Tak on various aircraft types.

Boeing 747-230F, Korean Air Cargo approaching Kai Tak Airport. Photo: JetPix (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2 ), via Wikimedia Commons

The Kai Tak Heart Attack with Obet Mazinyi

Siddharth Ganesh: Could you briefly tell us how many approaches you’ve conducted at this iconic airport and on what aircraft types?

Captain Obet Mazinyi: During my time that I was based at Kai Tak airport, I was fortunate enough to fly the Boeing 707 and the Boeing 747 from 1989 to the end when the airport closed in 1998. I would have done more than 300 approaches and landings at Kai Tak – averaging about 3 landings a month during this period.

To get a deeper understanding, could you talk us through the entire Kai Tak approach step by step?

As far as the approaches go, the main approach was the IGS (Instrument Guidance system) which was essentially an ILS but terminated some distance away from the threshold to runway 13.

The airport in the early days (before my time) mostly in the 1970s was flown with a lot of references to Red and White Checker boards that guided aircraft that had to be visual with the airfield, to a landing.

The checkerboards were still there when I first flew the approach in a Boeing 707 but more attention was given to the IGS. The visual reference to the checkerboards was still taught and used together with the IGS.

Pilots landing on Kai Tak’s Runway 13 would make the final approach after an essential turn at the “checkerboard” painted into a hill. Photo: Twitter via

The approach either started via a radar vector to intercept the localizer of the IGS or more commonly, aircraft commenced the approach from a non-directional beacon located at Cheung Chau Island heading westbound until intercepting another bearing to the SL NDB at which point the aircraft had to turn right at an altitude of 4500 feet at a speed of about 200 knots to intercept the localizer to runway 13.

It was expected that the aircraft would be established on the inbound course of 088 degrees (Which was 48 degrees from the runway direction) by 15 miles based on the DME (Distance measuring equipment) associated with runway 13 IGS.

In years gone past, a checkerboard was visible at the turning point. The final segment was descending on the Glide path on a track of 088 degrees until at 700 feet, with the runway visual, the pilots made a manual turn onto the final approach of 136 degrees to land.

The 700 feet point was the minimum descent altitude and at this point, the aircraft had to be turned inside of carefully placed checkerboards on the mountainside and passed to the left as you maneuvered to line up for the runway through a turn of 48 degrees while also adjusting for any crosswinds/ updrafts with seconds to touchdown!

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What was the most critical part(s) of the approach? And if things went wrong, what could they be?

It was essential that firstly, the runway was visual at or before the minimum of 700 feet. If at any point the pilot lost visual sighting of the runway, an immediate climb out (called a Go-around) had to be executed, remembering to TURN or you were headed straight for steep high ground!

In strong southerly winds giving a crosswind, prompt reaction to the drift in the turn was important as the wind would be pushing the aircraft into the side of the mountain just above where the final checkerboards were located.

If you drifted too much to the left, you had little option but to continue the turn but at the same time Go-around and come back for a second attempt at landing- not an uncommon event at Kai Tak.

Secondly, you had to be fairly accurate with your final descent in the final turn as the flight path was very close to buildings in the approach area with people settling down for lunch or dinner in the evenings.

Boeing 747-467, Cathay Pacific Airways over Kai Tak. Photo: By Christian Hanuise – Gallery page, GFDL 1.2

How would you recall the training for Kai Tak, back in the 80s when highly advanced simulators weren’t available?

The training was initially conducted by classroom briefing by the training department (Usually an instructor on the aircraft). Simulators were already in use then and the next stage was to practice the IGS approach in the simulator with a training captain. My first instruction was conducted in a Boeing 707 simulator in Sydney, Australia.

Then there was a requirement that a pilot had to sit on the jump seat and observe an IGS approach then would be allowed to make a physical approach and landing under the guidance of an instructor. Once you had gone through that process, you were cleared to operate at Kai Tak airport. Refresher training was conducted regularly every 6 months on the Kai Tak approach.

Northwest Cargo 747-200F landing at Kai Tak. Photo: By Roger Price from Hong Kong, Hong Kong – 啟德機場 – Landing at Kai Tak – 1991Uploaded by Fæ, CC BY 2.0

We’ve seen all jets come into Kai Tak at an extreme “crab” angle (more than usual) which seemed quite normal – What was the stress and friction like on the landing gears?

The technique used to reduce the crab angle was regularly taught in the simulator and also on the routes. The landing gear is very sturdy on these large jet aircraft and in some cases, it is permissible to land without de-crabbing the aircraft. Occasions like very wet and slippery runways are a case in point.

Suffice it to say, the tires took a beating on strong crosswind landings at Kai Tak mainly because of the added turn requirement resulting in late de-crabbing.

Captain Obet Mazinyi continues to fly on the Boeing 747-400ERF and the 747-8F with Cathay Pacific.

Featured image: Kowloon City, 1998. Prince Edward Road is the flyover in the photo. A China Airlines Boeing 747 is seen in the photo. Photo: By ken93110, CC BY-SA 3.0

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