Last Stand at Kai Tak

When the old order changed in Hong Kong, it made way for a new set of problems for a historic aero club.

THE FLOOR OF THE ARRIVALS LOUNGE AT THE FORMER KAI TAK AIRPORT displays a sign that reads “No Waiting,” but a dozen people still loiter. Not to greet passengers—the last one landed five years ago—but for the guard at the Kowloon East Job Training Centre to call the next applicant. Nearby, the counters that once faced a crush of impatient travelers checking in for Cathay Pacific flights now serve the Kai Tak Bowling Club, while downstairs, car buyers kick tires in a showroom converted from a baggage claim.

Vacationers and business travelers now fly from the new Chek Lap Kok International—which opened in 1998 and is 45 minutes away and nine times larger than Kai Tak.

Near the golf enthusiasts who tee off on a driving range upon the abandoned concrete of Runway 13 and the shoppers strolling through the open-air rummage sales are the stubborn members of the Hong Kong Aviation Club, still in place in their Nissen hut despite the changing fortunes of Kai Tak. The club goes back 80 years; it may have lost an airport but not the passion to fly. Because Chek Lap Kok is closed to most private pilots, the club now operates its six Cessnas and an aerobatic Slingsby Firefly from nearby Shek Kong military airfield, but only on weekends, and always subject to the goodwill of the People’s Liberation Army. One or two club aircraft are often available for instrument navigation practice at perpetually foggy Macau International Airport—which, in addition to having atrocious weather and no accessibility from Hong Kong by anything other than hydrofoil or aircraft, is increasingly hostile to general aviation because of increased commercial traffic. Only the club’s four helicopters, a restaurant, and the Aero Club Bar remain in operation at Kai Tak, and yet the slowly eroding former airport is the club’s best hope of continued operation.

Outside the Aero Club Bar, Hogan Loh ties down a Robinson 44 helicopter. He squints up at the construction cranes and skeletons of the high rises being built across the airport’s formerly flat expanse, then at the Kai Tak terminal. “There must be something on this airport worth preserving,” he says. “We could make it a shrine to the old Kai Tak.” Loh pauses to consider. “Well, why not...‘shrine’? That spirit is lacking in the second generation.”

Loh is a past president of the aviation club, as well as the honorary secretary of the Hong Kong Air Cadet Corps, a civilian organization that is jointly sponsored by the government flying service, club members, and local universities and is headquartered on club property. A squadron of Loh’s cadets can be found marching just outside the old terminal, following a peeling line on the ramp that once guided the nosewheels of Boeing 747s. Younger cadets take seats in an old departure lounge to hear an instructor lecture on lift and drag, his chalk squeaking on a blackboard.

Whenever a club aircraft can leave the ground, Loh asks the flier to offer a seat to a cadet. “We want the club to be Hong Kong’s aviation development center,” Loh says. “We plan to have a bachelor’s degree program by 2005.” Loh envisions 12-year-old cadets going on to earn an academic degree, get aviation career training, and then become dues-paying club members.

On this hazy Saturday, with a few hours’ notice, the Army has again canceled all the club’s flying slots at Shek Kong, grounding the cadets for another day. After he’s done tying down the Robinson, Loh nods to the pilots playing cards on the wicker seats. “ ‘We persevere’ is our motto,” he says.

More disappointment lies ahead. The caretakers of the terminal will toss out the cadets by New Year’s, along with the bowlers, car buyers, job seekers, shoppers, and squatters. The demand for living and business space in downtown Hong Kong is one of the reasons Kai Tak ceased operations. Overwhelming pressure to close the field had been applied years before the last airliner landed here, on July 5, 1998. On that flight—Dragonair no. KA841 from Chongqinq, China—the pilot flew the approach over the steel skeletons of new office towers, their construction halted at the maximum height allowable under the landing path. That night, a 24-hour construction effort began raising the towers to 20 stories, as if to add exclamation points to the permanence of Kai Tak’s end. Now the terminal will be knocked down to yield even more land for development, the centerpiece of which is a 15-year Chinese government project to provide 260,000 housing units.

“Things disappear overnight in Hong Kong,” says aviation facilities consultant and club member Cliff Dunnaway, who manages the Hong Kong Historical Aircraft Association’s modest collection. Dunnaway designed a Kai Tak postage stamp issued the day the field closed, and would draft any future—and right now, unlikely—design for an expansion of the aviation club grounds. Dunnaway worries that the present grounds will be seized by the government as a work yard for construction of a rail station starting this year. “There’s no push to preserve things,” Dunnaway says. “The government tried to close the club by charging commercial rent of more than $83,000, despite its heritage.” Only because of an application to have the club’s Nissen hut declared a historic landmark and the political connections of various members was the rent hike averted.

Dunnaway and Loh are charter members of the provisional aviation development council, a loosely knit group of club members and cadet officers trying to secure tax relief and development concessions—largely through behind-the-scenes political arm-twisting—aimed at preserving some of Hong Kong’s 92 years of aviation history. “Our government can still bulldoze you down if they don’t think you’re important enough,” Loh says.

The history Loh and Dunnaway wish to commemorate began in 1911, when aviator Charles Van den Born arrived from Belgium. He was bearing three crated Farman biplanes and hoped to fly from the only clear, flat patch available—a racetrack on Hong Kong island—but permission was denied. Instead, he dug in at Sha Tin, remote tidal flats nearby. On March 18, 1911, one of his Farmans—which he had dubbed Wanda—became the first aircraft to fly in Hong Kong.

The first commercial landplane flew from Kai Tak in 1936, and later that year, 4,000 spectators watched Juan Trippe of Pan American Airways splash down off Kai Tak in a Martin M-130 flying boat as he mapped out Far Eastern routes for his expanding airline. The next year Trippe instituted weekly service to Manila, with connections to San Francisco, in a Sikorsky S-42B flying boat that her crew called Myrtle. On Sunday morning, December 8, 1941—across the international dateline from Pearl Harbor—Myrtle was sunk at her moorings when 36 Japanese fighters smashed Kai Tak in a surprise attack. The airport’s first two hard-surface runways—which were later abandoned—were constructed by prisoners of war under Japanese control.

Flying clubs of various stripes have been in place at Kai Tak since 1924, when two Chinese businessmen, Ho Kai and Au Tak, formed the Kai Tak Land Investment Company to drain the waters off Kowloon for housing. They raised the land but not enough cash. The fledgling Hong Kong Flying Club leased 60 acres of the new land and planted a grass field of 900 by 1,200 feet for a pilot school and a clubhouse. Nearby, the club set up moorings for flying boats.

The Far East Flying Training School, which had been operating before World War II, reopened after the British reoccupied Hong Kong, and the school expanded operations to 800 students and 50 instructors. In 1962, a typhoon—ironically named Wanda—decimated the school’s hangars and wrecked its aircraft. The Aero Club of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Flying Club—which combined in 1982 to form today’s Hong Kong Aviation Club—took over pilot training, and by 1982 had graduated more than 6,000 students.

Last year, in an effort to expand business, the club opened its ground school to non-members. Within 48 hours, 29 students signed on. Because of daunting fuel and insurance costs, introductory flights run $345 per hour. With the help of the Government Flying Service—the descendant of the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force, which provides search and rescue, firefighting, and patrol—the Corps has mushroomed to 2,200 cadets between the ages of 12 and 18, plus 400 adult officer cadets, all of whom will soon be able to gain rotary-wing training in the club’s Robinson helicopters.

If Loh’s vision is realized, the club will continue its tradition of helping new pilots into the sky. “When I was very young, my uncle used to bring me to Kai Tak every single weekend,” says 18-year-old cadet Jimmy C.M. Leung. “At that time I imagined how exciting it would be to pilot the aircraft by myself—and the time soon comes!”

Leung won a scholarship to Australian Aviation College in Adelaide through a program jointly sponsored by Cathay Pacific Airways, Swinburne University of Technology, and the Government Flying Service. But despite growing its cadet rolls, the club has lost 30 percent of the members it had before the airport closed—many of them British subjects who returned home after mainland China took over Hong Kong in 1997, as well as the pilots and aviation workers who no longer stop by for a drink after landing a jumbo or leaving their office. “About 25 percent of the social members are out, and many of the expatriates are gone,” says club manager Chris Lau. “All of the former airport workers are gone.”

The club counts 500 full members who each pay an entrance fee of $4,166. Some members resist the changes—the push to expand services to non-members—and nothing can really replace the loss of a vital, exciting airport that once surrounded the club. Some of the remaining members would rather drink to the memories of the past. “There is a faction that wants [the club] bulldozed rather than opened to the public,” says Dunnaway.

“A lot of the [airline] pilots used to radio that they would walk around to meet us at the aviation club bar,” says former Kai Tak air traffic controller John L. Wagstaff, who transferred to the new airport. “The inner circle in the old tower was a more homey feel. It’s not the same at Chek Lap Kok, because of the sheer size and the long commute home.” Wagstaff worries that general aviation cannot survive the development: “Only money speaks, and in Hong Kong land is money.”

To help recapture a small part of the magic, the club’s long-term plans include an aviation-themed complex designed by Dunnaway that would be combined with the aircraft tie-down area. A Cathay Pacific DC-3, which now hangs in the Hong Kong Science Museum, would be one of the attractions. The restaurant, the 13/31 Lounge, would memorialize Kai Tak’s infamous runway, which treated jumbo jet pilots and passengers to a hair-raising approach that scarcely skirted the tops of surrounding apartment buildings.

On the descent to Runway 13 was a visual navigation aid above the airport known simply as the checkerboard, an orange and white pattern that was painted on a concrete-faced slope in 1973. It loomed large in the windscreens of jumbo jets that once flew at its sheer rock face at nearly 200 mph and 675 feet above Kowloon City, often while being buffeted by Hong Kong’s subtropical air masses. There was no time to glance at instruments; just before the checkerboard, pilots sighted Runway 13 out their right windows and turned their Concordes, Boeing 747s, or Airbus 300s 47 degrees hard right.

Other airports have final approaches that can be visually flown, says Cathay Pacific Airways general flying manager Andrew Maddox, who flew Boeing 747s from Kai Tak. “But I am not aware of any other that had the combination of factors resulting in the degree of difficulty associated with [Runway] 13.” Once they were over the runway and abeam of the aviation club, airline captains flared their jets, then stood on the brakes to avoid coming to rest in Kowloon Bay—a fate that, on average, befell at least one airliner a decade.

Flying out of Kai Tak was no less challenging and depended on tower controllers forcing airliners to remain at their gates until adequate taxi space cleared. With departure and approach corridors limited by the mountainous terrain, precise timing was the key.

“We had two 90-degree turns between the holding point and the runway threshold,” says Phil Parker, who spent 12 years working in Kai Tak’s control tower. “It takes up to one minute for a loaded 747 to line up, then one minute to get airborne. Meanwhile an aircraft flying 180 knots on final has gone six nautical miles. If a landing jumbo missed the approach just as another departed, the two flew in trail between mountains for six miles dead ahead through the Lei Yue Mun Gap. All we needed was one runway length between the departure and the landing to be legal.”

Indeed, all of crowded Hong Kong seemed to have some relationship to the airport. Beneath the checkerboard a miniature golf course once taunted putters with a foot-high Great Wall of China. In the midst was a navigational localizer, while nearby, elderly people participated in a morning tai chi class. The landing aids and mini-golf are gone, but the checkerboard remains a potent symbol to planespotters like Parker, who often mixed business with pleasure. “I’d clear them to land, then pick up my camera,” he grins.

Loh also laments losing the drama of Kai Tak’s legendary approach. He points out the weeds sprouting from the checkerboard, which is today crumbling under the constant movement of the hillsides. “There’s no purpose for it now,” he says.

Luckily for the club, most of the heavy development plans for the airport are focused on Kai Tak Point, which is at the opposite end of the runway from the club. Among the potential additions are an IMAX theater, 50,000-seat stadium, two hotels, a hospital, 28 schools, and a cruiseship terminal with helipad. One group of astronomy enthusiasts wants a 100-story observatory, and the Hong Kong tourism board may build replicas of Chinese junks to sail by the former runway.

Every new deal or development plan seems in some way to threaten the club’s future. In January, Disney’s Michael Eisner, martial arts actor Jackie Chan, and Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa broke ground for a new Disneyland on Lantau Island, where Chek Lap Kok International is located. Both Loh and controller Phil Parker predict that Disney fireworks—which would be directed over water and into one of general aviation’s only areas open for unrestricted visual flight rules—will necessitate new limits for club fliers and cadets.

In addition to the hoped-for aviation playground, there is hope for a proposed aviation museum where Oriental Golf City has taken root on the runway. Loh and Dunnaway’s efforts are aimed at helping the museum become a reality; doing so bolsters their chances of keeping the club’s buildings standing. But Loh scoffs at the museum’s chances: “That’s many, many years down the road if at all,” he says.

Months before Chek Lap Kok opened, the Hong Kong Historical Aircraft Association built a replica of Charles Van den Born’s Wanda and flew it from the new airport’s vast runways. The aircraft was then hung from the ceiling in the new terminal, a placement that Cliff Dunnaway thought was permanent. “Last year the airport marketing staff told me an airplane didn’t fit their vision for a retail experience, and wanted it out,” he says.

Like the heritage it represents, Wanda has been left hanging.

Air Cadets march smartly across a taxi line that guided 747s. Many win state-sponsored scholarships that pay for the aviation club’s flight orientation and training. Roger A. Mola

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