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See the Crazy Landings at Kai Tak, the Legendary Airport That Closed 20 Years Ago

July 11, 2018
8 min read
See the Crazy Landings at Kai Tak, the Legendary Airport That Closed 20 Years Ago
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There may not be two other words that carry the same weight among aviation geeks as "Kai Tak." Speak the name of Hong Kong's old airport to anybody who fancies themselves a commercial aviation expert, and you'll inevitably hear back some version of "Oh, that landing!"

Closed in 1998 to make way for a bigger — and way easier to land at — airport, Kai Tak was famous for a fiendishly difficult approach to a runway in the middle of Kowloon Bay that forced pilots to maneuver steeply, just above the roofs of a heavily populated city, before hitting the brakes hard to avoid ending up in the water.

Think New York's notoriously tough La Guardia, surrounded by water and with short runways — but with mountains on one side, skyscrapers on the other, sometimes a typhoon to contend with, and with much bigger and heavier airplanes. The place was a haunt for AvGeeks who came to photograph 747s making the last turn to align with the runway, right over buildings housing thousands of people. (Nobody ever hit one, by the way.)

20 years ago this month, Kai Tak closed, and its operations were transferred to the new Chek Lap Kok airport that inherited its three-letter HKG code, as well as its four-letter VHHH identifier. The new airport did not inherit, though, any of the problems of the old HKG. Getting in doesn't require the same finesse while hand-flying a double-decker with 400 people in it.

Today, Kai Tak is a cruise ship terminal. Many captains who flew into it are retiring. But the images survive — taken during the last days of film photography, they are grainy look at an AvGeek wonder that went away two decades ago. Here is our visual tribute to a legendary place:

Behold this Lufthansa Boeing 747-400 flying low over Hong Kong in the 1990s.

(GERMANY OUT) Landeanflug einer Lufthansa Boeing überKowloon auf den Flughafen Kai Tak (Photo by Winter/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Photo by Winter/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

An early-model cargo 747 screeches past the aging and tatty apartment blocks of Kowloon.

A jetliner screeches past the ageing and tatty apartment blocks of Kowloon city where aircraft landing and taking off Kai Tak international airport seem to just shave past a forest of TV antennas and batteries of roof-mounted airport lights. People of Hong Kong fear that Hong Kong's Kai Tak international airport expected to be running at full capacity in the 1990s, may be disaster-prone. Finally, the Kai Tak airport site in urban Kowloon was closed when the new one at Chek Lap Kok on outlying Lantau island was opened in July 1998. (Photo credit should read TOMMY CHENG/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo by TOMMY CHENG/AFP/Getty Images.

The compression effect of telephoto lenses made planes appear more sandwiched between buildings than they actually were, but still, 747 landings were a scary sight.

Near Kai Tak airport, a 747 landing. (Photo by Edgar MC TRESSIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Photo by Edgar MC TRESSIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

And speaking of 747s, this one from Taiwan's China Airlines skidded off the Kai Tak runway in November 1993. Foul weather and a slippery runway caused by Tropical Storm Ira were the culprit. Amazingly, there were no fatalities among 296 passengers and crew, but the weeks-old 747-400 was scrapped.

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HONG KONG, HONG KONG: China Airlines 747 sits in the water after skidding off the runway at Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong 04 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. (Photo credit should read GIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo by GIS/AFP/Getty Images.

This Airbus A300, also with China Airlines, buzzed a building surrounded by bamboo scaffolding in April, 1997, when Kai Tak was already slated to close.

TO GO WITH HongKong-property-land-KaiTak,FEATURE by Adrian Addison (FILES) This file photo taken in April, 1997 shows a jet coming in to land at Hong Kong's old Kai Tak airport as men work on bamboo scaffolding below the flight path. Kai Tak, which until it closed in 1998 was one of the scariest airports in the world, has been dormant for more than a decade because the city's authorities have struggled to reach a consensus about what exactly to do with it, with the land worth up to 40 billion USD. AFP PHOTO / FILES / Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images.

July 5, 1998: A cargo 747 lands on the second-to-last day of operations at the airport.

HONG KONG, CHINA: An Air Hong Kong plane comes in for landing over the crowded landscape of housing blocks near Kai Tak airport 05 July. The cramped saturated urban airport will be replaced Monday, 06 July, by a massive, shiny state-of-the-art version on an outlying island with purpose-built transport links, but many local residents say they will miss the drama and noise of the planes. AFP PHOTO/Manuel CENETA (Photo credit should read MANUEL CENETA/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo by MANUEL CENETA/AFP/Getty Images.

Here's a shot from 1996, the golden age of the Boeing 747-400, the best-selling version of the Queen of the Skies. This one is a United jet, in the classic "Tulip" colors:

(GERMANY OUT) Passagierflugzeug beim Landeanflug aufden Flughafen Kai Tak direkt über der NgaTsin Wai Road in Kowloon - 1996col (Photo by Winter/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Photo by Winter/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

The so-called "checkerboard" turn aligned airplanes with the runway, with a steep bank at very low altitude. This had to be flown manually, whatever the weather. Here, an Alitalia MD-11 demonstrates how it's done:

Alitalia Md-11 On Approach To Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong, Asia. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images.

After the turn, planes were on the so-called "final approach," when the plane is aligned with the runway — just like this 747-400 from home carrier Cathay Pacific. This shot was taken in June 1998, when even more people than usual gathered to watch on top of a car park.

HONG KONG, CHINA: Hundreds of Hong Kong people gather onto Kai Tak Airport's rooftop car-park 27 June to capture a momento of planes making their approach toward the runway. Remembered by millions of passengers and thousands of pilots for the spectacular approach skimming rooftops to land, Kai Tak closes 05 July as Hong Kong's new Chek Lap Kok airport opens the following morning. Opened in 1930, Kai Tak is said to be the only airport in the world where you don't see the runway until moments before you land. AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN. (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images.

And this is what Kai Tak looked like in 2010, on its way to becoming a cruise ship terminal able to berth the largest cruise vessels in the world.

HONG KONG, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 7: Construction site of the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal Building on September 7, 2010 in Hong Kong, China. The new cruise terminal, located at Victoria Harbor, will be able to berth the largest cruise vessels in the world. (Photo by XINHUA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Photo by XINHUA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.
Featured image by AFP/Getty Images