You might wonder why the first photo I'm posting of my recent HK trip isn't of the HK skyline, or The Peak, or Victoria Harbour, or my most favourite building in HK, but of this strange hill with a barely discernible white pattern on it.
This hill, however, is one of the most important things I came to Hong Kong to see. HK, in certain ways, was like a pilgrimage—as a true-blue Cantonese, I wanted to come to a place where everybody around me spoke Cantonese. It was like the equivalent of visiting a hometown! In another way, finally coming to HK was also a pilgrimage to come see one thing: the old Hong Kong Kai Tak International Airport.
Some of you might know that HK is one of those places which I've always wanted to go and wondered why I've never been, so I have absolutely no recollection of Kai Tak Airport. I can't even remember when was it that I first heard that Kai Tak's approach to land was infamously challenging. All I can recall is someone telling me many years ago about how landing at HK was very exciting because the plane will make a sharp turn before landing, and it was so low that you could even see the televisions on in the apartments below. This was before the Internet of course, so I didn't think much about it. My fascination with Kai Tak only began after I found out online why exactly the approach was so difficult!
Basically, because of the topography of Kowloon, unlike other airports, planes could not align with the runway to land from far out. So to land at Kai Tak, the pilots have to approach Kowloon from the west, and the Instrument Landing System does not guide the planes down to the runway but instead of being installed on the runway, it is installed on this small hill that has an orange and white checkerboard painted on it and aircraft are guided down to it (hence it's an Instrument Guidance System, not ILS). Just before reaching the hill, the pilots will then have to execute a sharp 47° turn to align with the runway and land on Runway 13. This turn is normally executed at a height of around 650ft (200m) and completed at just 140ft (43m), upon which you land almost immediately. It's quite hard to visualise this so let me show you through pictures:
Kai Tak closed on 6 July 1998; the new Chek Lap Kok airport is next to the NDB marked Sha Lo Wan
You can see that you basically have to fly down to Checkerboard Hill and then make that sharp right turn. Sounds pretty straightforward, but imagine doing this at night, or in a thunderstorm, where you can't see the runway properly. Also, not forgetting that the winds around Kai Tak are notoriously shifty due to the mountain range directly northeast of Kowloon. Shooting the Rwy 13 approach is already tough enough with constant winds because the crosswind would change as you made the 47° Checkerboard Turn. It would be worse during typhoon season, when the winds would be strong, gusty, and shifting. The winds sweep down the hills towards the harbour and vary greatly in speed and direction, which affects the lift of the aeroplane. Despite this, the Rwy 13 approach was used most of the time due to the prevailing wind direction.
It's pretty telling too that Kai Tak's difficult approach is infamous not only within the aviation community but amongst the general public as well. When the airport was still in operation, hordes of spectators would throng the rooftop of Kowloon City Plaza, the roof deck of the airport car park, or Checkerboard Hill itself, to watch the big jets bank steeply and take big crab angles in strong crosswinds [you can see the video later for examples]. Thankfully, they left us a large collection of photographs to remember this unique airport.
Air Canada A340 and Korean Air B747 doing the Checkerboard Turn
Checkerboard Hill (格仔山), as seen from Cathay Pacific B744
Apparently 格仔 actually means 'checkerboard' in Cantonese
The view from the other side, overlooking Kowloon City
B747 rounding out from the Checkerboard Turn onto short final
See that orange building at the bottom centre of the photo? I'll show you why it's so special later....
Overview of the Kai Tak Runway 13, with B747s coming in for a dusk landing
Checkerboard Hill is on the left, and a B747 is doing the Checkerboard Turn on the right
You can see how low the aircraft is over the city at this stage, and it's still banking!
JAL B747 over densely-packed Kowloon City
Any mistake in the Checkerboard Turn would really have disastrous consequences
Indeed, the approach plate itself reminds you of how important it is to fly this correctly through a couple of terse lines:
Continued flight on the Instrument Guidance System flight path after passing the Middle Marker will result in loss of terrain clearance.Basically what this means is that the guidance system will guide you down to the checkerboard even if you can't see anything because of heavy rain or cloud. But once you fly over this marker beacon, you have to be able to see the runway itself and start the turn visually. If you can't, you had better turn anyway but climb up to get away from the mountains, otherwise you'll smash into the ground! But turning any earlier than the marker beacon will probably result in you smashing into the buildings of Kowloon City, because after executing the turn, you come screeching literally over the rooftops of Kowloon City, for scenes like this which were world-famous but will never be seen again....
Missed Approach is mandatory by Middle Marker if visual flight is not achieved by this point. ... the right turn must be made at the Middle Marker as any early or late turn will result in loss of terrain clearance. After passing the Middle Marker, flight path indications must be ignored.
I always thought it was really funny how they make it sound so sterile: 'result in loss of terrain clearance', when actually it means 'you will hit the ground or something else similarly hard'!
Street view, Kowloon City
Surprisingly though, for all its difficulty, there were relatively few accidents at Kai Tak throughout its history. In the 24 years since the IGS was installed, there have only been 2 major accidents at Kai Tak because of the IGS Rwy 13 approach, with only 7 fatalities. Of course, this is not including the numerous cases of hard landings, damaged landing gear, engines and flaps scraping the runway, or small excursions off the runway, like this one:
Then of course, there is the matter of stopping the aircraft before you run off the little sliver of runway into the harbour.
Trying to round out the turn before they get too close and too low....
An example of how the shifting winds can easily make your Checkerboard Turn go awry....
Better press that TO/GA and go around!
On top of the challenging approach, the controllers had to play a delicate jigsaw puzzle as Kai Tak was really a very busy airport
A Dragonair A330 is just departing after the Thai Airways B747 landed, and Tower has cleared the China Southwest B737 for an immediate departure while a Cathay Pacific B777 is already on short final!
A300 thundering in to land over the Prince Edward Road flyover
TRIVIA: Everyone speaks of the "the checkerboard" but in reality there were two checkerboards: one faced west towards the IGS 13 approach, the other faced south towards the runway (presumably this was for the benefit of pilots doing a departure from Rwy 31). Currently only the south-facing one can be seen; I could find no trace of the west-facing one as that side is overgrown with vegetation. :(
My own journey to Kai Tak and the Checkerboard
No pilgrimage is complete without relics, and there were 2 relics of Kai Tak which I had to visit: Kai Tak itself and Checkerboard Hill (plus a third which I serendipitously ran across).
The first full day I had in HK, I went to visit the Wong Tai Sin Temple and the Kowloon Walled City Park. After exiting through the southern side of the Walled City Park, I found myself at Kowloon City.
Looking at the mass of 1970s buildings, I imagined what it must have been like, watching the 747s scream in low overhead....
Those tall buildings could only be allowed to be built after 1998
Then, at the corner of Hau Wong Road and Nga Tsin Wai Road, I came across a building which looked very familiar....
Ahh... this was none other than the lesser-known but equally important Approach Light Building! Basically, the space constraint around Kai Tak meant that there was simply no way the airport could keep an area of 3000ft from the runway threshold free for the approach lighting system, so they had to make do by mounting the lights on top of a building! To be honest, I wasn't sure if this was really the building so I asked a nearby shopkeeper if he knew which one it was and he confirmed it. This is what it looked like when the airport was still in operation:
As you can see, the diagonal indentation on the roof used to mount the approach lights is still there!
After walking down through Kowloon City, I finally crossed a couple of pedestrian subways to find myself looking at an old, rusting fence, beyond which I knew was where Kai Tak used to be:
Some of the original restricted area signs still remain
I went over to the HK Aviation Club, which is the only physical reminder of Kai Tak's heritage as once the most famous airport in the world. Inside, they had this lovely framed aerial photo of Kai Tak taken in 1994:
Sadly, the Rwy 13 end of the famous runway is now nothing more than a giant coach park, but it was in the HK Aviation Club that I realised that I could probably go into the area and possibly find the original runway still remaining!
After trekking in and navigating my way through many barrier fences, I realised that the asphalt I was standing on was grooved, and that only means one thing: this was part of the runway! And then I realised that the thick white bar there wasn't part of the parking lot but instead was...
A GIANT WHITE ARROW!
This was part of the displaced threshold marking for Rwy 13! If you look at the earlier photos you will notice that before the runway threshold 'piano keys' there are a series of white arrows leading up to them; this was one of the arrows!
OMG I'm standing on the Kai Tak runway!
I turned around, and true enough: there was Checkerboard Hill, with the checkerboard still faintly visible
The yellow taxy line leading the planes out from the runway to the apron
This is the furthest in I could go. What a pity, I was hoping to actually be able to stand on the big number '13'....
Before I left, I asked a coach driver to help me snap a photo on the white arrow (he probably thought I was nuts).
Two days later, I was in Yau Ma Tei when I hailed a taxi and asked if he could bring me to Checkerboard Hill. It took the taxi driver a while to realise where I wanted to go but thankfully, he told me that the checkerboard was next to a park and that was the closest I could get to it!
The closest I could get to the famous checkerboard
People used to be able to climb all the way to the base of the checkerboard itself, but the gate is now locked. :(
Right below the checkerboard now are some tennis courts. The people playing tennis there probably didn't realise the significance of what was directly above them
I was rather sad to see the checkerboard in a bad state of disrepair, but it has after all been 11 years since the airport closed and perhaps I should be glad that it was not removed!
Across the valley (where Junction Road is) is another smaller hill called the Chinese Christian Cemetery Hill. You could also see this easily from the aeroplane window during the Checkerboard Turn
A further view of the checkerboard; this is the south-facing [Rwy 31] one. On the left you can see the inclined slope where the west-facing [IGS Rwy 13] one is supposed to be, but it's too overgrown to see anything
The checkerboard with Lion Rock in the background. You can see why it's important not to fly past the Middle Marker!
For those of you who want directions to find the checkerboard, don't bother telling the cab drivers Checkerboard Hill. Just tell them to bring you to Kowloon Tsai Park [remember: it's Kowloon Tsai, not Kowloon Park, which is in Tsim Sha Tsui]
Go all the way in and at the end of the road you'll see these steps with the yellow railings leading you up to the checkerboard
They're developing Kai Tak into a cruise terminal so it's only a matter of time before the runway itself is torn up. I pray that this will still be here the next time I come to Kowloon....
Kai Tak Videos
Thank God for YouTube, which allows those of us who are too late to go there, to see why Kai Tak was so spectacular....
Kai Tak IGS Rwy 13: the view from Kowloon City (just after the checkerboard turn)
View from a Kowloon City rooftop, this video gives you an overview of the checkerboard turn (which starts at about 0:20)
View from the cockpit (the checkerboard turn is at 3:20; you can see what I mean by the moment you complete the turn, the runway is right there and you land)
Cockpit view in rain (you get a good view of the checkerboard at 1:15, and then the steep bank required for the checkerboard turn)
Cockpit view at night, on the last night of operations, 5 July 1998 (at 6:10 you can see the runway lead-in lights [the ones that flash in a turning line towards the runway] and then the checkerboard turn. Pity you can't really see the checkerboard at night but from what I understand, it's not lit but has a single red flashing beacon to show where it is)
Airport Diagrams and Approach Plates
I'm sorry I cannot lj-cut within an lj-cut, but for the aviation enthusiasts, here are the Kai Tak Airport Diagram and the Kai Tak approach plate (from both the HK Aeronautical Information Publication and Jeppesen). The Jeppesen plate is among my most prized collections, because for some reason it cannot be found online. I got my copy scanned from the original which is owned by a Learjet instructor who used to fly for Cathay Pacific. Apparently on the last day of operations, every pilot got a framed copy of the plate, and it's one of the rare ones which read 'Hong Kong, PR of China', instead of the former 'Hong Kong, BCC'.
Instrument Approach Chart, Hong Kong International Instrument Guidance System Rwy 13 [AIP HK]
Index 11-3A, Hong Kong International IGS Rwy 13 [Jeppesen]
The airport diagram clearly shows where the checkerboard is in relation to the runway and the sharp turn involved
Goodbye Kai Tak. It is my eternal regret that I never flew into you whether as a passenger or behind the controls. And now the only way I can give a shot at one of the hardest approaches in the world would be in the simulator....
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