Kai Tak airport, Hong Kong – the Bajan connection

Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong closed on 6th July 1998. Landing at Kai Tak was a one-of-a-kind experience for pilots and passengers alike. It was breath-taking. With mountains on the port [left hand] side as you flew through a very distinct urban corridor of medium rise buildings bound by high rise buildings on either side, prior to making a visual low-altitude 47° right-hand turn at the checkboard, ending with a short final approach and touchdown on Runway 13 HKG.

Kai Tak Kowloon flightpath
A JAL 747-400 aircraft on the Kai Tak flightpath over Kowloon heading towards the Chequer Board. On the flight path the buildings are medium rise with higher rise tower blocks on the outer edges creating the impression of an urban corridor for aircraft to follow.

For pilots the Kai Tak landing was one of the most challenging and technically demanding, as the approach could not be flown by just using the aircraft instruments.

Kai Tak was my favourite approach anywhere in the world. Every second landing for Cathay Pacific pilots was into Kai Tak and we quickly became very good at it. We had 100 ft lower weather landing limits than any other airline because of our familiarity with our home airfield.

With strong crosswinds from the South West we would “pre-turn” the final turn and let the wind drift us on to the centre line.

With crosswinds from the North East we would delay our final turn and get the same result. It was exhilarating.

The checkerboard and the proximity to the high rises in Kowloon City added drama to the approach.

On rainy nights it reminded me of scenes from the movie “Blade Runner”.

On days off we would sometimes go onto the top floor of the Kowloon City Plaza to watch our competition come into land – with much hilarity.

We had a certain sense of pride in being able to complete this approach with precision.

Cathay Pacific Captain Steve Nichol (retired).
Kai Tak checkerboard
Kai Tak checkerboard – Lion Rock (Lok Fu).

Here is a simplified IGS13 approach check list which can be followed on the Cathay Pacific Jeppesen Instrument Approach chart below.

  • Intercept the IGS Localizer heading East at 088 entering what appears as a corridor of buildings that are restricted in height on the flight path and descend to 4,500 ft following the IGS Localizer and Glideslope
  • Pass the Outer Marker at 1,730 ft slowing down to approach speed
  • Reach the Middle Marker at final approach speed and 700 ft.
  • Look for the Checkerboard and Lead-in lights
  • Shortly before or at the Middle Marker disengage the Auto-pilot and Auto-throttle. Note the WARNING on the Jeppesen Instrument Approach chart: “Continued flight on the Instrument Guidance System flight path after passing the MM [Middle Marker] will result in loss of terrain clearance” – which is aviation speak for you will crash into the mountain!
  • Bank to the right and perform a visual low-altitude 47° right-hand turn, ending with a short final and touchdown on IGS Runway 13, Hong Kong International Airport. Typically the aircraft would enter the final right turn at a height of about 660 feet and exit it at a height of 140 feet to line up with the runway. That demanding manoeuvre was known in the aviation community as the “Hong Kong Turn” or the “Checkerboard Turn”.
Instrument Approach Chart - Kai Tak IGS13
Jeppesen (Cathay Pacific) Instrument Approach Chart – Kai Tak IGS13 dated 20 June 1997 Effective 1 July 1997 (post Handover of Hong Kong to China).

As a passenger coming into land at Kai Tak as you banked to the right you could look out the starboard [right hand] windows and see people in their apartments below and literally see what they were eating or watching on TV! They appeared so close it felt as if you could reach out and touch them. Having turned at the checkerboard and about 140ft above the crowded streets of Kowloon City the streets turned into a runway and with a puff of smoke from the tires and the roar of the engines as reverse thrust was engaged the aircraft was on the ground.

Welcome to Hong Kong. Landing at Kai Tak IGS Runway 13, Hong Kong International Airport was way better than any white-knuckle roller-coaster ride!

Below you can relive landing at Kai Tak.

Landing at Kai Tak on IGS Runway 13, Hong Kong International Airport.

“The first time it’s hair-raising – its always breath taking”.

Quote from Cathay Pacific Captain Mike Lowes (now retired) – taken from the BBC “The Air Show” which in 1997 filmed from the cockpit CX461 landing at Kai Tak IGS Runway 13. The Air Show was presented by Julian Tutt, Fenella George and Vicky Kimm and aired on the BBC and BBC World. Captain Lowes’ co-pilot was First Officer (now Captain) Mark Hall.

Here is a similar landing but from 1970 before the Instrument Guidance System (IGS) was in place. In those days to use runway 13 pilots were required to have the runway in slight when the aircraft was near Cheung Chau Island. The IGS to aid landing on runway 13 was not installed until 1974.

Swiss Air Convair 990 Coronado landing at Kai Tak Runway 13 in 1970.

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.

Aircraft landing at Kai Tak airport Hong Kong
A Boeing 747 classic aircraft manoeuvring overhead the streets of Kowloon City on its way to landing at Kai Tak Runway 13. (source: SupChina)

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 Pam Am “Clipper” seaplanes 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. A new runway 13/31 that gave Kai Tak its identity was built parallel to the original runway 13/31. This new and extended 2,550-metres (8,350 ft) runway 13/31 was built on reclaimed land jutting out into Kowloon Bay. It was completed in 1958, the same year that Kai Tak was officially designated Hong Kong International Airport. The two old runways 13/31 and 07/25 were redeveloped as the new apron and terminal building. A new passenger terminal was opened in 1962.

In the 1970’s Kai Tak acquired its legendary status. On 11th April 1970, the first Boeing 747 arrived in Hong Kong, and for decades photographers and plane spotters had a spectacular view of these magnificent aircraft manoeuvring amid the apartment blocks and peaks of surrounding Kowloon. The new runway 13/31 was further extended in the mid-1970s to 3,390 metres (11,130 ft). This extension was completed in June 1974, however the full length of the runway was not in use until 31st December 1975, as construction of the new Airport Tunnel kept the new runway extension closed.

Pilots required special certification and training to be qualified to land their aircraft at Kai Tak. This is one of the reasons why despite the dangerous and complex approach, accidents were rare. One of the only commercial crashes during approach happened in1993 when a China Airlines Boeing 747-400 landed long during a typhoon and aquaplaned off the end of the runway, resulting in 23 injuries and no deaths. This five month old China Airlines Boeing 747-400 aircraft was written off as a total hull loss.

China Airlines Flight 605 Boeing 747 accident Kai Tak 4 November 1993
China Airlines Flight 605 Boeing 747-400 sits in the water after skidding off the runway at Kai Tak, 4th November 1993. Foul weather and a slippery runway caused by Tropical Storm Ira forced the passenger jet to skid and plunge into the sea. There were no fatalities. (Source: AFP/GIS. In Pictures: Spectacular shots from the final days of Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport)

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.

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

On 5th July 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 1am, a brief ceremony turned out the lights on Kai Tak airport. A convoy of airport vehicles then made their way to to the new airport at Chek Lap Kok on an island located north of Lantau Island off Ma Wan Chung and Tung Chung that was flattened to form the new airport.

The new airport at Chep Lap Kok opened officially the next day – although it had already welcomed a handful of official planes, including Air Force One carrying US President Bill Clinton – several days earlier. The “HKG” designation that Kai Tak had carried since 1958 was transferred over to the new airport. The original intention was that the new Hong Kong International Airport would be completed before the hand-over of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Sadly this did not happen.

Hong Kong Chek Lap Kok pro-democracy protesters
Chek Lap Kok pro-democracy protesters.

Hong Kong’s new airport has paralleled the fate of the territory.

The new Hong Kong Airport, Chep Lap Kok, is the doorway to a much changed Hong Kong following the 2019 – 2020 pro-democracy protests. During the summer of 2019 pro-democracy demonstrators occupied the terminal several times, cancelling 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.

So what’s the link to Kai Tak? It is a Bajan. Civil Engineer, Edward Audley Boyce who was the Hong Kong Colonial Service’s: Director of Public Works. During his tenure in the early 1950s he supervised the building of an extension to Kai Tak’s original Runway 13/31. In official Hong Kong Legislative Council papers he is referred to as The Hon. Edward Audley Boyce – Director of Public Works.

Audley Boyce went to Harrison’s College (1913 – 1917) and then read Civil Engineering at Edinburgh University (1922 – 1925). Having completed his Civil Engineering degree he joined the Colonial Service. Audley Boyce’s first posting was to Uganda as an Assistant Engineer working for the Director of Public Works Uganda. From there he went to the Bahamas as Deputy Director of Public Works. While based in the Bahamas he met and married Enid Gray Adderley in 1930.

E.A. Boyce Director of Public Works - British Honduras
Announcement of promotion of Audley Boyce from Deputy Director of Public Works for the Bahamas to Director of Public Works for British Honduras effective December 1936. (source: Ann Carmel – Bahamas)

From the Bahamas Audley Boyce went to British Honduras as Director of Director Public Works and then to the British colony of the Gold Coast (known after independence as Ghana) then to Hong Kong and then back to The Bahamas.

After four years professional work experience as a Civil Engineer Audley Boyce applied for Associate Membership of the Institute of Civil Engineers. His application has a note that says:

1917 -1918..Officer Training Corps And Home Defence with the Barbados Volunteer Force awaiting Commission for Service Overseas.
1919 -1922..Owing to post war conditions, joined:- The Royal Bank of Canada and The Economic Insurance Co. Ltd. prior to Professional Training.

Source: Institute of Civil Engineering application for Associate Membership – 8th February 1939

Prior to Honk Kong Audley Boyce was Director of Public Works in the British colony of the Gold Coast, where he was responsible for developing the old military airport used by the Royal Air Force during World War II into what would later become Accra International Airport (now re-named Kotoka International Airport).

With Hong Kong’s growth of air travel after World War II Audley Boyce as Director of Public Works was responsible for the post World War II extension to the original runway 13/31 at Kai Tak and very early pre-planning exercises for a new and parallel runway 13/31 jutting out into Kowloon Bay on reclaimed land. This new runway would herald the jet age and would give Kai Tak its modern day status as a breath-taking landing.

This is what Kai Tak looked like while Audley Boyce was Director of Public Works in Hong Kong showing the original runway 13/31 and 07/25. Landings were allowed on runways 07, 13 and 31. Take-offs were allowed on runways 13 and 25.

Shown below is the building of the new runway 13/31, parallel to the old runway 13/31 which was completed under Director of Public Works Theodore Louis Bowring.

Interestingly, Theodore Bowring who succeeded Audley Boyce as Director of Public Works in Hong Kong was Audley Boyce’s deputy in British Honduras in 1935. Prior to serving in Hong Kong Theodore Bowring was the Director of Public Works in British Honduras and Nyasaland (Malawi).

Hong Kong had a tradition of naming roads after the Director of Public Works. Boyce Road, Jardine’s Lookout was named after Audley Boyce. Others include: Purves Road named after AB Purves, Henderson Road named after Richard McNeil Henderson…

Boyce Road is off Moorsom Road, Jardine’s Lookout. See: Signs of a Colonial Era by Andrew Yanne and Gillis Heller, published by Hong Kong University Press 2009. Page 83 – 86, Other Hong Kong Civil Servants and Military Figures.

Audley Boyce’s successor as Director of Public Works, Theodore Louis Bowring, missed out on having a road named after him as there was already a Bowring Street in Kwun Chung named after Sir John Bowring, 4th Governor of Hong Kong from 1854 to 1859.

After leaving the Colonial Service Audley Boyce set up a Civil Engineering practice in Nassau, Bahamas where he and his wife Enid lived. They had no children.

Audley Boyce’s elder siblings were Alfred deCourcy Boyce – known as Bill (middle brother) and Henry Freeman Boyce – known as Free (eldest brother).

Bill Boyce was a lawyer in Barbados and was a partner in the law firm Yearwood & Boyce. He passed The Law Society, Intermediate Examination pursuant to the Solicitors Act 1882 of Barbados on 16th October 1914 and The Final Examination on 17th November 1916. He was awarded an OBE in the January 1969 New Years Honours list. Bill Boyce was married to Susan Bettina Parris and had one child: Dorothy Catherine Boyce born in 1931.

Freeman Boyce the eldest of the Boyce brothers was a teacher. He studied the classics at Cambridge (1912 -1915) having been at Harrison’s College. In October 1915 during World War I he enlisted and served as a Lieutenant with the 6th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry on attachment from the Devonshire Regiment. Freeman went missing on 21st March 1918. On 21st March 1918, the day he was reported missing and taken prisoner, the battalion had taken part in the Battle of St Quentin (21st – 23rd March 1918) on the Somme. Freeman was repatriated on 8th December 1918. He suffered all his life from what was then called shell-shock – what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). During rainstorms in Barbados he would hide under the dining room table in his step mother’s house which had a corrugated sheet steel roof – thinking he was under fire. Helen Josephine Boyce (nee Dowding) was the Boyce boy’s step mother. She married the boy’s father Henry Alfred Boyce in 1930 following the death of their mother (Catherine Gertrude Boyce nee Gambal) in 1928. Freeman Boyce the eldest of the Boyce brothers had no children. Freeman is named after his mother’s father William Freeman Gambal.

Below are a selection of photos of the Boyce brothers – Freeman, Bill and Audley.

Alfred deCourcy (Bill) Boyce was my grandfather, Grandad Boyce. Freeman Boyce and Audley Boyce were my great Uncles. I knew Freeman as Uncle Free and Audley as Uncle Poo. My middle name is Edward after Uncle Poo. From 1997 until 2014 Hong Kong was my home. My mother Dorothy Catherine Burton nee Boyce was named after Grandad Boyce’s mother Catherine Gertrude Boyce (nee Gambal).

Additional information on Kai Tak, Hong Kong International Airport :

Our thanks to Prof. Sir Henry Fraser’s who featured this story on his weekly 5 minute radio programme on Capital Media HD 99.3 FM called: Did you know?.

Did you know? No. 374 – “Audley Boyce, Bajan engineer extraordinaire” aired on Friday 15th July 2022 on Capital Media HD 99.3 FM Barbados.

Did you know? airs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8:15am Barbados time and is then repeated at 12:45 and 5:15pm. It is about people, places and untold stories of historic Barbados summarised into a 5 minute radio time slot. Did you Know? is about all aspects of Barbados’ heritage – much like BajanThings. For those outside of Barbados a live feed for Capital Media HD 99.3 FM is available on mytuner-radio.com or raddio.net.

If you missed Prof. Sir Henry Fraser’s: Did you know? on Capital Media HD 99.3 FM on Friday 15th July 2022, click on the link below to listen to an audio recording:

“Audley Boyce, Bajan engineer extraordinaire” audio recording is reproduced here by kind permission of Prof. Sir Henry Fraser and Capital Media HD 99.3 FM.

Responses to “Kai Tak airport, Hong Kong – the Bajan connection”

  1. Andy

    I had the satisfaction of landing at Kai Tak in daylight, back in the 1980’s on a BA 747 classic. The take-off was frighteningly long, thought we would never get off the ground en route to Bahrain. My further visits to HKG was via the new airport at Chep Lap Kok in 2007+

  2. Iain Edghill

    Great article! By the time I got around to flying to Hong Kong, Kai Tak had been replaced with Chep Lap Kok. I always regretted that I did not have a few entries into Kai Tak in my log book. The person you need to talk to about Kai Tak is Capt. Robin Taylor. Robin is a Bajan who flew for Tropic Air, Barclays Bank, and latterly with Cathay Pacific. He is now retired and living in New Zealand. He’ll have lot’s of great ‘war stories’ about Kai Tak for you.

    Keep up the good output of interesting stories.

  3. James Packer

    Thanks for this history and the connection with Kai Tak and the Boyce family. I flew in and out of this airport many times in the 1990s without appreciating the link with Barbados. I remember JAL had cameras under the plane so that the passengers could see this “white knuckle” approach over the tops of sky scrapers.

    1. Peter Burton

      James – glad you were able to re-live that Kai Tak IGS Rwy 13 landing. Prior to 1998 I was lucky enough to sit in the cockpit jump seat on many a BA Kai Tak landing and found it totally exhilarating.

  4. Patricia (Pati) Bayley Mull

    Great article!!! Sounds like when I was landing in the Jungles of S.A. on 1500 feet unpaved runways!
    Pati Mull

  5. Olga Cynths – BeautifulBarbadosBlog

    Thank you for the thrill of the ride and and a tasty bit of history.

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