Hong Kong Kai Tak

Exceptional Airports: Hong Kong’s “Kai-Tak”

Tim Takeoff
3 pictures
5 minutes

We introduced you to New York Airport in our previous article on the Canarsie Approach – and here is the next in our series. Today we will be taking a look at one of the key airports of Asia – and the world – namely Hong Kong.

From a simple airstrip to an airport of superlatives

The millionaire city of Hong Kong is situated in East Asia on the coast of the South China Sea – to be more precise on the Pearl River estuary. The city developed amidst numerous islands and mountain ridges, some of which are over 600 meters high. A narrow runway north of Victoria Bay was Hong Kong’s very first acquaintance with air traffic. It was named the “Kai-Tak” airport, and even in the 1960s, developed hand in hand with the city’s tremendous economic boom, into Hong Kong International Airport (in ICAO code VHHH, HKG).

Rapid growth

The high rate of growth naturally took its toll. Back in the 1980s, both the Kowloon settlements and the airport were continually growing closer together. The old “Kai-Tak” became famous for its unique approach to “runway 13″. Due to the topographical conditions, a direct approach to that runway through the chain of hills in the northwest was not possible. Nevertheless, the goal was to enable the use of modern instrument approach technology. With this in mind, the so-called “Checkerboard approach” was established.

The Checkerboard

Commercial aircraft normally fly in alignment with the direct extension of the runway onto the ILS – Instrument Landing System. This system consists of a guide beam that signals to the pilot via radio waves whether he is approaching the runway at the correct distance and altitude, and in the correct direction. This allows the pilot to land even in poor visibility and adverse weather conditions.

This procedure was modified for runway 13. The ILS (at that time renamed “IGS- Instrument-Guided-System”) for that runway led at an angle of 48 degrees to the extended runway centerline towards “Checkerboard Hill”. To be more precise, this was a vivid red and white checked pattern, or “checkerboard” painted onto the mountainside to aid navigation. This meant that the pilot had to fly a very steep right turn in the last few moments before landing in order to line up with the runway. This was an enormous challenge for the crews in view of the densely populated areas and the frequent harsh winds and associated turbulences.

In this video you can see the checkerboard, the localization antenna as well as the approach and turning of the plane viewed from the Kai Tak Checkerboard:

In this video you can see how low the planes fly over the roofs of the city when approaching “Kai Tak”. Impressive pictures …

The move to the new airport

As the volume of traffic was continually on the increase, “Kai-Tak” was bursting at the seams in the mid-1990s. Not only because of the high demands placed on flying skills, but also on account of the noise and the proximity to the city, a new airport had to be built. A suitable site was found north of Lantau Island. Until 1990, the island Chek Lap Kok was situated here, which reached a height of up to 100 metres. Strangely enough, it was flattened and levelled down to a height of seven meters above sea level. Space was created for a dual runway system in east-west orientation, with central passenger terminals. The cargo area in the south is one of the largest hubs in the world.

All air traffic was moved from the old Kai Tak airport to Chek Lap Kok within one day (!) in the summer of 1998. More than 1,200 airport vehicles were driven overland in a convoy through Hong Kong.

Here you can find out why the move was still quite nerve-racking:

High demands

But Hong Kong simply wouldn’t be Hong Kong if the new airport were not good for surprises too. Even if it has a modern approach system with parallel take-offs and landings, Chek Lap Kok is located north of Lantau Island. This island reaches a height of up to 1,000 meters and covers the entire southern part of the airport. Southern wind currents result in strong turbulence in the northern area, where the airport is also located. Approaches take place almost exclusively from southern directions. Pilots always have the large elevations of Lantau Island in view on their screens. The airport itself is an island in the water.

In this video you can see the landing approach to the new Hong Kong Airport HKG:

Typhoon season and wind shear

Especially during the typhoon season from May to November, extreme weather changes must be reckoned with. To prevent extreme gusts of wind, a special system has been introduced in Hong Kong to warn pilots at an early stage. This so-called “Low Level Wind Shear Alert System” detects by various measuring methods whether there are strong changes in wind force and direction over a short period of time. This information is then passed on to approaching and departing machines in order to avoid possible wind shearing. In the worst case, the power of the engines might not be sufficient to escape such a wind shear at low altitude.

Construction of a third runway

Hong Kong is nonetheless worth a trip. Not only because it is a pulsating city – it is also a hub. From Hong Kong you can reach about half of the world’s population in just five hours by plane. In order to secure the location of Hong Kong, a third runway north of the airport is currently being built on a site gained by land reclamation. At the same time, further terminals are being built to equip the airport for handling 100 million passengers – the magical threshold – per year. A real airport of superlatives.

Cover © Wikimedia Commons – Barbara Ann Spengler

by Tim Takeoff

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