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Kai Tak - Hong Kong's Dangerous Landing Airport


One day I went out to try and find locations to take photos of the aircraft landing at Kai Tak. At the time I was shooting black and white with a Pentax 6x7 camera and doing the developing myself. Lots of work but also a lot of fun. For this photo I was on one of the small hills nearby. The plane had passed the checker board area and was making his turn to final approach.

At the time I was a full time airline pilot for Pan Am, and a part time musician playing for different types of bands in the San Francisco Bay area, who had some great vocalists. Before you begin reading: Watch this exciting compilation of landings at Kai Tak which very graphically shows the close proximity to the buildings, and then you'll better understand some of the things I'll discuss in this article. In other videos below I'll narrate what you are seeing as the approach is carried out with the camera in the cockpit. Kai Tak Landing Compilation Video The Location Kai Tak Airport was built on reclaimed land at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula with the runway jutting out into Victoria Harbor. There is only one runway and it is facing in the easterly direction of 130 degrees (east southeast) and the opposite direction is 310 degrees (west northwest) On the eastern end of the runway and all along the south and north side of the runway is Victoria Harbor. The north and the west side is ringed by hills and mountains. That leaves very little margin for error. The final approach from west to east for runway 13 is over a large number of low rise buildings surrounded by higher buildings. You could use an analogy of threading a needle at 200 miles per hour.

The landing approach using runway 13 at Kai Tak was spectacular, world-famous, and dangerous. The turn onto the final heading for the approach

had to be done with precision while also controlling airspeed and altitude. There is little room for error as you'll see in some of the videos. There were several accidents with fatalities over the 70+ years the airport was in operation, and it finally closed in 1998.

Approach Map This Google Earth map below shows the typography that we had to deal with as we flew our Pan Am 747's into Kai Tak. For a better understanding, I highlighted the following on the map:

Approach Path (Black line - Sorry, I couldn't change the color)

  • Checker Board (On hill at the tip of the arrow)

  • Lead In Lights (Round white dots leading to runway)

On the Google Earth map photo you can see that the airport is

already closed. The terminal and other buildings have been razed and all the low buildings in the final approach path were razed to make room for high rises now that the airport is no longer active. Long Duty Days When I was flying into Hong Kong I was flying the Pan Am Boeing 747. We flew non-stop from San Francisco, but sometimes, due to strong winds we had to stop at Taiwan for fuel. We had a double crew because the duty time would be up to 14 hours. The flights would leave San Francisco late in the afternoon, so the awake time would be much more than 14 hours, actually closer to 24.

Obviously, when we arrived at Hong Kong we were not at our peak physical nor mental state, but we had to perform at our highest level. It required much advance planning, alertness, and crew coordination. However, with the double crew we were able to get a rest break on the airplane, and that really helped. We had two bunks just behind the cockpit.

Precision is the Key to Success To make a successful approach and landing on runway 13 in low visibility and/or strong cross wind conditions, the Pan Am pilots had to know exactly what action were going to be taken at each step in the approach, and make sure that the thought process was several miles ahead of the airplane anticipating each upcoming action. So, if you reach the go-around point and don't see the Checker Board, then you immediately make a go around without giving it a second thought.

If you try to cheat a little, thinking you'll see it in a second, that's when you get into trouble. My philosophy was always that it is better to explain to my Pan Am Chief Pilot why I went around rather than try to explain why I damaged the aircraft. However, the strongest motivation for the Pan Am pilots to do it right was that we had the responsibility for the safety and comfort of our passengers. That philosophy carries over into my musician singer business today. I feel the need to always give over 100% to make sure my audience has a great time. And when I have guest vocalists, I expect the same of them.

The Approach The approach to runway 13 is up Victoria Harbor on a heading that will take the aircraft toward the checker board. At a certain point you can descend to the minimum altitude which was about 600 feet. If you don't see the checker board by a certain point a go around is mandatory. When the checker board is spotted, you keep flying toward that until the strobes and lead in lights are spotted. At that time a normal descent to the runway can begin at the same time as you make the turn to follow the lead in lights until the runway is in view.

On each side of the runway, there is a set of 4 lights at the target touch down spot of 1500 ft from the runway threshold.

  • If all 4 lights on both sides are white, then you are too high.

  • If the inner two lights are red and the outer two lights are white, then you are on the visual glide path.

  • If all the lights are red, then you are too low and must make a correction to prevent landing short. Landing short can spoil your day!

On a couple of the videos, shot from the cockpit, you'll see those visual glide slope lights with the aircraft right on the glide path. These photos below are great at full size. Due to copyright restrictions I'm required to show them just as they are. So click on the photo and take a look at the large version. In the photo below, you'll see that these buildings are residences, and they are right next to the airport. The airplane is over the runway overrun area, just short of the touch down zone.

On approach path to Kai Tak airport between apartments
Pilot musician landing at Kai Tak

If there is a cross wind the problem is greatly exacerbated, because you're not only having to make that turn to correct and line up with the runway but you also have to make the cross wind correction to make sure the plane lands headed straight down the


The video (with audio) below shows the results of overshooting and the necessary last minute corrections in a cross wind resulting. The people taking the video are on top of one of the nearby buildings. Sometimes they go to on of the hills with a powerful lens to get different types of shots. Obviously photographing the planes landing at Kai Tak was a popular hobby with the locals and tourists. Especially on a windy day.

Bad Cross Wind Landing Video

  • The aircraft is first seen heading toward the Checker Board.

  • Then you see the turn to final.

  • He apparently didn't compensate for the cross wind and started his turn a little late, consequently overshooting the path to the runway.

  • You see him make a correction back to the runway path, and then when he gets on the path he had to turn back to the runway heading,

  • But again he apparently did not compensate for the cross wind, so at the last second you see the aircraft turn into the wind and touch down with the aircraft not headed straight.

These aircraft can tolerate a lot of stress, but on a landing like that the mechanics will have to perform an inspection to check for damage. I've never had to do it, but it must be embarrassing to have to write up a "hard landing" in the maintenance log. It is required.

Good Approach Example The best strategy is to slightly undershoot the heading to final approach. That way any correction is just a slight leveling of the wings to stop the turn until you're almost lined up and then make another slight correction. This next video is an excellent example of that technique used during an approach in the rain with relatively low visibility.

Perfect Approach and Landing video

This is inside the cockpit and with the audio on you can hear the pilots calling out "runway in sight", altitudes, and other things as they proceed through the approach and landing. You can also hear the tower talking to them.

  • The video begins as they leave the harbor and are over Kowloon.

  • The strange sound you hear is when the Captain turned off the auto pilot. You hear him say "auto pilot off", to alert the Engineer and Co-Pilot to what he is doing.

  • Next you see the black spot (hill) low and in front of the plane.

  • The Co-Pilot announces "runway in sight" (It's to his right)

  • Next you see the Checker Boards coming into view on that hill.

  • Then there are some more call outs and the aircraft begins it's turn onto the final approach heading

  • As the runway comes into view you can see that he slightly undershot the turn, and now is gradually sliding over to the runway center.

  • That is the perfect technique because it eliminates the problems inherent in overshooting.

  • On the runway, you see a series of arrows pointing to a set of dashed lines. Those dashed lines are the beginning of the actual runway.

  • You then see a series of white markers -- three on each side - then one large one on each side by the visual glide slope lights - then two on each side - and finally one on each side.

  • The farthest markers "one on each side" is the end of the 3000 foot touch down zone, within which we must touch down.

  • The visual glide shope indicators show that he is exactly on the glide path.

  • At 60 feet the automatic sensors begin calling out the height of the wheels from the ground.

  • His main wheels, which are quite a ways behind the cockpit touched down about exactly on the 1500 foot marker which is the desired touchdown spot.

  • As soon as he touches down you can hear the automatic spoilers being deployed to help slow the plane down, and the auto brakes are also automatically applied.

  • Then you hear the Captain reverse the engine thrust to assist the brakes in slowing the aircraft.

  • Next the flight engineer called out 80 knots at which time the Captain would release the auto brakes and take over braking manually.

The majority of the landings in Kai Tak were like that, exciting but uneventful. Unfortunately, some were not so good.

The Concorde Missed Approach Below, the Concorde got into difficulty in a cross wind, and made the very wise decision to go around.

Concorde Missed Approach video (not at Kai Tak, but interesting)

Perfect Night Example Next is a perfectly executed night approach from inside the cockpit. Perfect Night Landing video

  • At 2:18 the strobe flasher and lead in lights become visible. Look to the left of the screen which would be toward the front of the aircraft.

  • You'll see he's making a slight turn to begin following those lights to the runway. The runway is actually visible but the lights blend in with the city lights and are still not really distinctive.

  • At 2:44 the runway is now clearly distinguishable

  • Notice that this pilot is also undershooting just a little so he can slide over if necessary without having to make any steep correcting turns.

  • At 3:08 the camera shoots from the front window and he is perfectly lined up with the runway.

  • It was a very smooth landing and I couldn't tell at which point he touched down.

  • Next the photographer, possibly a relief pilot, points the camera to watch a plane take off, and then focuses across the harbor to Hong Kong Island and you can see one of the many ferry boats carrying passengers from Kowloon to Hong Kong.

Overshooting the Touchdown Zone In 1993 the China Air flight was landing with 70 degree cross winds at 20 knots gusting to 40 knots, and there was wind shear reported which can cause serious changes in airspeed with a resultant loss of altitude. The airplane did not touch down within that 3000 foot touch down zone I showed you above. Instead of executing a missed approach at that time, he continued to land about 2100 feet past that touch down zone. That left less room to stop, and there were a couple other mistakes that were made which caused hydroplaning (where the wheels are on top of the standing water on the runway and not getting sufficient traction to brake.)

He was then on a collision course with the Approach and Landing System at the end of the runway, so he elected to ground loop th

e airplane so it would turn and go off the runway sideways to miss that ALS. There were 22 minor injuries in this accident. About 13 minutes prior to this approach a British Airways flight had refused to make the approach because of the current condition with the reported wind shear. Photo ID 0180234:

Sometimes a pilot will take the risk thinking he may be criticized for going around, or having to inconvenience the passengers by going to an alternate airport. The intentions are honorable, but the judgment is faulty and as in this case the risk can turn out to be disastrous. By refusing the approach under those conditions and going to an alternate, the passengers would have been inconvenienced ---- but they would have been safe.

I retired from flying in 1992, but my memories of that glamorous career are still vibrant. Landing at Kai Tak was always a welcome challenge, and every good landing there was one to be extremely proud of.

Since retiring, I became a full time musician playing drums in my own band, and eventually became a singer of all the songs I grew up with and loved. Being a vocalist musician is also challenging and takes a lot of study and practice, similar to flying - and it is also a rewarding feeling to know that the vocalist concert you just finished was a good one.

For any pilots who have not been to Kai Tak, below are some approach charts to check out: Jeppesen Approach Plates

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