In looking forward to my trip to Hong Kong I also looked back to my first trip to the former British crown colony in 1998 and landing at the infamous airport officially called Hong Kong International Airport but more commonly known simply as Kai Tak.
Having been built as a local airfield in the dawn of Asian aviation in the 1920’s by the 1990’s Kai Tak was operating past capacity in what was then the third busiest passenger terminal in the world and busiest cargo transhipment airport with the 11,000 foot runway protruding into Victoria Harbour like a finger. Surrounded by rugged mountains the white-knuckle final approach felt like a roller coaster skimming the rooftops at an almost walking pace in a huge 747 jumbo jet before grinding to a halt at the end of the runway with water on 3 sides of the narrow runway breaking on the rocks feet away. That close proximity of water and runway was tested at times as a former chief inspector of the Royal Hong Kong Police who in retired life leads a walking tour of Lamma Island admitted when a jet slid off the runway in the rain but luckily all aboard all were rescued. Visual cues helped guide the pilots down as the runway 13 approach featured an aviation orange & white checkerboard perched atop a hill in Kowloon Tsai Park which marked the turn point for aircraft on final approach which were by that point in their descent barely 1,000 ft. above the rooftops of Kowloon City. Like Kai Tak that checkerboard visual reference has all but faded to all but the most avid of visitors.
While I hadn’t planned it that way my first visit to the Special Administrative Region (SAR) in late June 1998 saw the first anniversary of the hand-over of the former British colony to Chinese control and the end of the anomaly of an airport that was Kai Tak which closed 6th July 1998, two days after my departure. The replacement was a sprawling complex on the island of Chek Lap Kok off the north shore of Lantau Island that had been six years in the making. I spied the then empty airport from a taxi perched on hill above the sprawling complex while on my own makeshift a tour of Lantau island which included a visit to the giant outdoor seated Buddha at Po Lin. The ambitious plan to close one major international airport and open a new one the next morning proved too much as technical troubles plagued the new airport for weeks afterward.
The former Kai Tak runway was eventually turned into a cruise ship terminal with one portion at the end of the old runway 13 set aside as a park complete with plaques noting the former role of the airstrip. I enjoyed my visit to the place being alone with the wind & mist to both swirl around me at this end of spit of land which served as an end of one kind of transportation hub and a new phase of another with cruise ships replacing of airliners and took a moment to reflect upon the many aircraft pilots whose steely nerves guided their planes safely down upon this narrow sliver of land.
Hong Kong International Airport (Chek Lap Kok)
Hong Kong International Airport (Kai Tak)
Photo by christian hanuise used by permission under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License