An innovative approach led to 24 years of fantastic spotting of heavy jet airliners
Hong Kong’s International Airport was nestled in a mountainous region of the city. First built in the 1920s, the airport served mainly to train aviators. The airport is located only 4 nautical miles from a ridge of mountains that has peaks over 2000ft. During the early days of flight, this wasn’t a big deal as most small radial or piston powered aircraft could turn final within a small radius.
After World War II, the airport slowly rose in prominence to become the international airport for the city. In the 1950s, Kai Tak featured two runways. Runway 13/31 and a shorter runway 07/25. Runway 13 was extended to accommodate larger aircraft. As jet aircraft became the norm, the airport faced a delima. Jets flew at higher speeds, even on approach. The surrounding terrain was too high for a typical straight-in approach to runway 13 during instrument conditions. Even non-precision approaches would still provide inadequate terrain clearance. Even after extending the runway to over 11,000 feet long, the airport usability was limited and unable to keep up with the population growth that needed to utilize it.
Along comes an innovative solution in the 1970s
In 1974, the airport installed an Instrument Guidance System. It was a creative way to provide instrument guidance for approaches. Aircraft would fly a precision approach to a checkerboard built on the side of a hill. At a predetermined DME (and once the checkerboard was in sight), the aircraft would then make a 90 degree turn to final. At night, approach lighting would guide the way. Check out these two videos by JTWPilot and AirBoyd detailing the famous approach.
A whole plethora of sketchy landings
While this made instrument approaches possible, they were still incredibly challenging at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak. All pilots had to fly the approach to standards in the simulator in order to become certified to fly it in real life. The prevailing winds were typically a still cross-wind. Every pilot had to bring their A-game. Some didn’t and their poor approaches remain etched in the collective memory of avgeeks and memorialized in viral YouTube videos.
The party couldn’t last forever
By the late ’80s, it was becoming clear that Kai Tak would need to be replaced. The infrastructure and footprint was too small for such a large city that relied heavily on air transportation. The challenging approach and land-locked location meant that options for further expansion were limited. Kait Tak closed on July 5, 1998. And with it, the world-famous checkerboard approach became just a memory. The new Chep Lap Kok International Airport opened a day later. It remains Hong Kong’s International Airport to this day.
If you are looking for other videos, be sure to search YouTube. AirBoyd has as number of other great videos from that era.