Even today, after 14 years, I feel very disappointed not to have had the chance to land at Hong Kong’s former International airport, known as Kai Tak Airport, which closed down in 1996. As a young child growing up in London, and who was so much into aeroplanes and flying, I always wanted to go aircraft spotting at Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong. For me it was a dream destination. Sadly I never got to see the place in action as I first came to Hong Kong in 2001. However, recently last year, I was fortunate enough to go and visit the site of the old airport, and see how much of the area has changed. Of course, since I was not there when the place was active, so I could only assume from historical photos and videos of what the place must have been like then. I had also arranged to meet up with Peter Chiu, the manager of the Regal Oriental Hotel, which is situated opposite the former airport- offering its guests panoramic views of the harbour and the former airport site. The hotel used to be a popular choice for airline crews.
Kai Tak airport was well renowned worldwide for its dare devil final approach into the airport’s only runway, which stretched out 2 miles into Hong Kong Harbour. When the Kowloon City side of the runway was in use (used to be known as Runway 13, due to its heading of 130 degrees), aircraft on final approach used to commence their descent into Hong Kong over Macau, then head towards either the southern part of Lantau Island (the location for the current airport, Chep Lap Kok). The other route was to fly over Hong Kong Island, and make their way over Kowloon (going over Jordan and Hung Hom); and then at around 700 feet the planes used to aim for a checkerboard on one of the hills facing Kowloon (a navigation point consisting of a hill painted in a red and white chessboard pattern), and make a sharp 37 degree right hand turn over Kowloon city onto the final approach towards Runway 13. The runway was used as a venue for Celine Dion's January 25, 1999 concert on her “Let's Talk About Love” Tour. Between December 2003 and January 2004, the passenger terminal was demolished.
Sitting in the restaurant on the top floor of the Regal Oriental Hotel one does get a feeling of what the place must have been like- buzzing with activity and noise all around. You could almost imagine the exciting for onlookers must have been like to watch a, say 747-400 fly right over the hotel and land on the runway in the distance. Peter told me that even those hotel guests who had no interest in planes, would come to the restaurant just to catch a glimpse of the airport site, and even more so at night because of the beautiful runway lights. Peter further explained to me that everything in the area of Kowloon City is just the same as it was when the airport was operational- everything, that is except, of course, the airport and the planes.
The local government has built a Cricket pitch at the stop where the threshold to the runway used to be! While I was there taking photos, there was a cricket match being played by a local college team. I am sure some of the players must have been born after the airport closed. As one of the youngsters ran up at speed to bowl, it looked like a stark contrast that 14 years ago on the same piece of land many planes ran down the same way, but, alas, not to bowl, but to fly away around the world’s cities! Some of the runway and taxiway markings are still there, the road leading to the airport tunnel is still there, complete with the directional signpost saying: “Airport Tunnel”, but sadly there is no airport and the tunnel leads to a dead end; then there is that famous bridge which connected the airport terminal to the Kowloon City shopping mall- the bridge is still there, but it’s not connected to anything. Quite possibly the saddest part of it all is that the checker board is also still present on the hill overlooking Kowloon City.
If you want to get to the old checkerboard, then its a bit tricky. You can first take the 'Kwan Tong' line to Lok Fu Station. When you get to Lok Fu Station, take the exit going towards Junction Road. Lok Fu Park is located on Junction Road, and is just a 2 minute walk from Lok Fu Station. To get to the Checkerboard take the first left hand turning at the entrance of the park, and carry on walking to the top of the first bend. At the first bend, turn right and climb up a small dry steep slope (right next to a fenced power station operated by CLP holdings). Just carry on walking all the way around (make sure you dont fall over the steep slopes!). Its about a 5 minute walk to get to the checkerboard itself. There are a few things to bear in mind: 1. It is strongly advised not to go at night time as there is no lighting in the park- especially at the Checkerboard, 2, Go with someone rather by yourself- dont want to get lost in a remote place as this, and 3. It is strongly advised to wear some trainers.
The Hong Kong government’s plan to build a terminal for luxury liners, and a large shopping centre is well in progress. There are also quite a lot of new high rise property being built right around the harbour and the old runway. Like the old saying goes that all good things come to an end- and even though Kai Tak has come to an end, its legacy still continues for aviation enthusiasts around the world.
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