Remembering Kai Tak – The Pilot and People’s Airport

Remembering Kai Tak – The Pilot and People’s Airport

DALLAS — She sat right by Kowloon Bay in downtown Hong Kong—on one end, the sea, and on the other, high-rise buildings and mountains. The pilots, who were on the edge of their seats, used nothing but sight, stick, and rudder to steer their jumbo jets just over the roofs of these local Hong Kong residents’ homes seconds before touching down and burning the rubber of the gears.

Kai Tak, a special airport, stays in the hearts of the select few pilots who flew in there and of the people of Hong Kong. It was one filled with thrill, adrenaline, risk, and emotion. Hong Kong is and has always been a bustling, prime city in the far east that couldn’t go unnoticed, and so was Kai Tak. Since 1925, this airport symbol has served as a gateway into the bay city as well as a hub to Asia.

Demanding and difficult, precision had to be on point as the pilots had to land manually. The famous orange and white checkerboard on the mountain slopes, which is still present today, guided the pilots on where to turn to make the final approach for landing. It required a 47-degree turn below 500 feet, even frequent flying passengers were sure to find some butterflies in their tummies!

In due course of time, Kai Tak outgrew its capacity by a whopping six million; besides, it was on the limits of safety and difficult for airplanes to fly so low over such populated areas. There was simply no other solution but to bring in a new airport for Hong Kong, Chep Lap Kok. Cathay Pacific’s CX3340, an Airbus A340-300, took off from runway 13 for the very last time, bidding farewell to Kai Tak, which ceased operations in 1998.

A Boeing 747-467 from Cathay Pacific Airways flies over Kai Tak Airport. Photo: christian hanuise (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2 ), via Wikimedia Commons

A Kai Tak Diary

Captain Obet Mazinyi has over 22,000 hours of flight time in a variety of large commercial jets. Of these, a big chunk is inked at Kai Tak, having done several hundred approaches into this very airport, he’s been keen to share his views with me on what it was like from a pilot’s eye.

“I first flew into Kai Tak when I came to Hong Kong to take up employment with Air Hong Kong on the Boeing 707-300 series aircraft. I was a passenger on a British
Airways Boeing 747-400 from London Heathrow. I was excited, of course, to finally come to the Far East, and especially Hong Kong. Later on, after arrival, I went up to the car park at Kai Tak airport to watch aircraft coming into runway 13 after an IGS approach. It’s the first time I’d heard of an IGS approach as opposed to an ILS.”

“In a month, I made my first landing in the seat of a Boeing 707- how exhilarating even though you always have some apprehension but I’d had the simulator training and observed a couple of approaches, so I was sufficiently confident. I flew an accurate approach and touched down bang on the touchdown zone markers. I was pleased. This was to be the first of many approaches on both the Boeing 707 and later the Boeing 747.”

Historical Hong Kong — Kai Tak. Photo: Alix Lee, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Lost in Sight but Rembered by Feeling, Forever

Today, what was once Kai Tak is mostly a cruise terminal with some skyscrapers scattered around it. This particular piece of land, which separated Hong Kong for 73 years, has seen so much that it is simply exhausted and now sits quietly, welcoming some breeze from the bay to those who walk by it. 

The airport, famous for its one runway and an approach path loved by some pilots and not others, often also goes as ” the Kai Tak Heart Attack”.

In the following post, we sit down with Captain Obet and bring out the real deal of the Kai Tak approach itself, so stay tuned to Airways.

Featured image: Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport 1971. Photo: Barbara Ann Spengler from Arizona (& Florida), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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