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 turn of 47 degrees at the checkboard, ending with a short final approach and touchdown on Runway 13 HKG.
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).
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 Autopilot and Autothrottle. 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!
- Begin a right turn and bank to the right prior to landing on IGS Runway 13, Hong Kong International Airport.
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 150ft 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.
Here is a similar landing but from the 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.
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.
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 “Clipper” seaplanes of Pan Am 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. Runway 13/31 that gave Kai Tak its identity was further extended on reclaimed land into Kowloon Bay and completed in 1958, the same year that Kai Tak was officially designated Hong Kong International Airport. And 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.
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.
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 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
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 1 a.m., 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 U.S. 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’s new airport has paralleled the fate of the territory.
Chep Lap Kok is the doorway to a much changed Hong Kong after the 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 was the Hong Kong Colonial Service’s, Director of Public Works who after World War II supervised the building of an extension to Kai Tak’s original Runway 13/31.
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 Audley joined the Colonial Service. His 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.
From the Bahamas he 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 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.Source: Institute of Civil Engineering application for Associate Membership – 8th February 1939
1919 -1922..Owing to post war conditions, joined:- The Royal Bank of Canada and The Economic Insurance Co. Ltd. prior to Professional Training.
Prior to Honk Hong 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).
In Hong Kong, Audley Boyce was responsible for the post World War II extension to the original runway 13/31 at Kai Tak.
This is what Kai Tak looked like while Audley Boyce was Director of Public Works in Hong Kong showing the original runways 13/31 and 07/25. Landings were allowed on runways 07, 13 and 31. Take-offs were allowed on runways 13 and 25.
After leaving the Colonial Service Audley Boyce set up a Civil Engineering practice in Nassau, Bahamas where he and his wife Enid lived.
Audley Boyce’s elder siblings were Alfred deCoursey 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.
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.
Below are a selection of photos of the Boyce brothers – Freeman, Bill and Audley.
Alfred deCoursey (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. And, my middle name is Edward after Uncle Poo. From 1997 until 2014 Hong Kong was my home.
Some additional information on Kai Tak, Hong Kong International Airport :
- Kai Tak Airport
- Remembering Hair-Raising Landings at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport. Turn right at the mountain
- Checkerboard Hill and the crazy Kai Tak Airport approach
- HK Civil Aviation Department – Kai Tak Airport 1925-1998
- Photos of Kai Tak Airfield
- In Pictures: Spectacular shots from the final days of Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport