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The Harrowing Runway of Hong Kong's Old Kai Tak Airport

Kai Tak Airport was Hong Kong's official international airport from 1925 to 1998, well known for its proximity to the city and dramatic landings.

The (In)famous Kai Tak Airport of Hong Kong

Kai Tak Airport Was Hong Kong’s international airport between 1925 and 1998. It was officially called Hong Kong International Airport from 1954 until its closure in 1998. The airport is often referred to as Hong Kong International Airport, Kai Tak to distinguish it from the airport which took its place. Kai Tuk's single runway was surrounded by both mountains and skyscrapers. It was this position that made a landing into Kia Tak Airport a very dramatic experience for even the most experienced of pilots, who would be required to complete a nerve-wracking series of manoeuvres, often through forceful winds.

History of Kia Tak Airport

The government bought the land that would become Kai Tak Airport following the failure of the business plan put forth by the Kia Tak Investment Company. Abbott School of Aviation was established at the site in 1924 and soon became a grass strip runway airport for several flying clubs. A concrete track was constructed on the grass runway in 1928 for use by the seaplane that frequented Kowloon Bay. By 1936, a domestic airline had been established in Hong Kong. Kai Tak was expanded by the Japanese Army in 1942 using prisoners as laborers. The airport became a Royal Navy shore base in 1945 with an eventual plan to modify it into an international airport. By 1974, Kia Tak Airport could provide a landing for several aircraft. However, the growth of the areas surrounding the airport put a strain on its capacity. The demand for the use of the airport exceeded what it could hold. It was constructed to handle about 23.9 million passengers per year, but by 1996 it was handling 30 million passengers (as well as 1.5 million tons of freight). The expansion of the residential area and the airport were also growing too close for comfort.

Accidents at the Kia Tak Airport

With the perilous runway that extends to the sea and a descent through the tall buildings and mountains, Kia Tak Airport was the ultimate test for pilots taking off or landing at the airport. The airport was a site of botched landings that included incidences such as planes crashing into the water and pilots rerouting during poor conditions. In 1948, 33 passengers and crew members were killed when Civil Transport Douglas DC-4 crashed at the Basalt Island. The following year, 23 people were killed when their plane crashed into a hillside due to poor visibility. In 1951, 16 people were killed when their plane lost control while attempting a night-time visual. In 1993, a Boeing operated by China Airlines overshot the runway during a typhoon, although there were no fatalities.

The Closure of Kia Tak Airport

Due to the incidences and the accidents that characterized Kia Tak Airport, the government of Hong Kong began to establish an alternative airport in the 1980s. A new airport was established at Chep Lak Kok while the last plane departed Kia Tak Airport on July 6, 1998. A ceremony to celebrate the closure of Kai Tak Airport was held inside the control tower. The director of civil aviation ended his closing speech with the words “Goodby Kai Tak, and thank you”, then dimmed the lights before turning them off completely. The site of the former Kai Tak Airport currently hosts a terminal for cruise ships.

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