Care to guess what this is?
That’s old, peeling paint. It’s much faded now, but it used to be bright orange and white.
It’s a huge checkerboard painted on the side of a mountain. Here’s a bigger view.
And a view from a distance.
This little mountain is really close to our apartment. (Much like Bruce Lee’s last house.) What is it, you ask?
It is among the last remnants of Hong Kong’s old airport (Kai Tak), which closed on July 6, 1998. Kai Tak started as a rural airstrip, then became more like a real airport during the Japanese occupation of WWII. As Hong Kong expanded really quickly in the post-war years, so too did the airport.
Here’s the thing about Kai Tak, though. It’s nestled between mountains on the water in what is a very built-up area of Kowloon. Here’s a map. The airport is the blank area just to the right of the words “Kowloon Bay.”
Kai Tak was famous for the flight path in. Let us begin with an instrument approach procedure chart.
You can see the approach starts over on the left, over the very large Lantau Island (coincidentally, where the new Hong Kong airport is). Planes then proceed east. Now look at the little icon where that horizontal line stops. It is, as the chart clearly labels it, a checkerboard. Interesting.
At the checkerboard, pilots had to execute a totally bonkers maneuver. Here’s Wikipedia’s description:
Upon reaching a small hill marked with a huge “aviation orange” and white checkerboard, used as a visual reference point on the final approach (in addition to the middle marker on the Instrument Guidance System), the pilot needed to make a 47° visual right turn to line up with the runway and complete the final leg. The aircraft would be just two nautical miles (3.7km) from touchdown, at a height of less than 1,000 feet (300 m) when the turn was made. Typically the plane would enter the final right turn at a height of about 650 feet (200 m) and exit it at a height of 140 feet (43 m) to line up with the runway.
So that meant for some crazy skilled pilots. In fact, pilots had to be specially certified to land at Kai Tak. Here’s what the turn looked like in practice.
Now here’s the other crazy thing. Between the checkerboard and the runway is a very densely populated area of Kowloon called Kowloon City. After making the turn, planes descended very low over the city. To wit:
The turn had to be done visually—i.e., without the aid of instruments. In fact, they had to ignore their instrument guidance system upon reaching the turn. Check out this awesome chart.
Let me draw your attention to a few details. First, the prominent checkboard icons. Second, the warning in the middle of the right-hand column:
Continued flight on the Instrument Guidance System flight path after passing the MM [Middle Marker] will result in loss of terrain clearance.
So that’s a nice way to put it. If you don’t ignore the guidance system, you’ll crash into a mountain.
This chart is also kind of cool because it says “Hong Kong, PR of China” on it, during the brief period that Kai Tak was open after the return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997.
Here’s a photo I took from the checkerboard, looking towards the old airport. (The area is now under development, allegedly as a cruise ship terminal.) The runway is that piece of land jutting out into the water.
There are also lovely views of Victoria Harbor and HK Island, which isn’t very far away.
Here is an excellent little video that better explains and illustrates the checkerboard turn.
Would you like to see this landing done from inside a cockpit? Here’s a video. You can see the checkerboard quite clearly dead ahead around 2:55, with the sharp right turn shortly thereafter. Notice how little time there is after completing the turn for the pilots to ensure they’re lined up properly.
The landing at the new HK airport is a lot more boring. Which, frankly, I think I’m okay with.
Note to those who might have stumbled on this blog and want to know how to get to the checkerboard: The checkerboard is at the northern end of Kowloon Tsai park, behind the tennis club. We entered the park via the stairs at the junction of Hereford Road, Baptist University Road, and La Salle Road. Once you’re in the park, look up and left. Voilà! Back behind the tennis courts you will find a stairway up the mountainside. Unfortunately, it’s behind a locked gate.
Fortunately, that fence extends only about 15 feet to the left, and you can climb over the boulders to get to the stairs. (It’s not exactly high security.) It’s a little precipitous once you’re up the hill, but well worth it for the view. I encountered some people having a picnic, and they told me they descended from Lok Fu park, which is at the top of the mountain. That lacks the drama of the ascent, though.
23 responses to “Checkerboard Hill and the crazy Kai Tak Airport approach”
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Very cool! Kai Tak was sure one of the most amazing approaches of all times. Thank you!
Some nice links. I worked at Kai Tak (UK Military Airport Unit) from 1988 until1992 and flew into and out of the airport on military (VC10, Tri-Star- C130) and civil aircraft many times during my time there. Every landing was an experience to remember. Good to look back on something that unfortunately, will never again be experienced.
Loved this. I went to the checkerboard yesterday as well as out to the new liner terminal on the old Kai Tak runway. Take a look at my pictures on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153192600450184.1073741826.631540183&type=1&l=fe010c887c
For heritage sake, I wish the city of Hong Kong would p
reserve the checkerboard as its world renown by enthusiasts and normal people alike!
How does a pilot land at Kai Tak at night
Not any more…!! But in the old days, follow the IGS down until you cross the marker, then make a descending 45 degree turn to the right. If you’re u cant see the runway lights at least hat point, you’re going around. Sounds easy, doesn’t it!
I think the old saying was, “Any landing is a good landing”
Anyone remember the ADF approach from Chung Chow RBn direct the checkerboard via chep lok ? and lead in lights to the final turn. What were the minimums? It was fun VFR. RT (Ratchet)
It’s not hard to credit photographers… The Korean Air 742F and the Cathay 743 photos are mine!
So sorry for the oversight! Captions added!
Nice, detailed summary of what it was like at Kai Tak. I was just up the top of the hill today and then walked along Kadoorie Avenue past where the DFO of my old company used to have a fancy house. Now I’m having a quiet beer in Mong Kok.
I used to fly in and out of Kai Tak in 747s and then Airbus A330/340s. What a fantastic time! The “new” airport (it’s nearly 19 years since it opened) is not nearly so special or fun.
At the top of the hill there’s a nice grassy area. This afternoon there were three people up there; me and a couple of joggers. And all under the gaze of a beautiful Lion Rock.
Hi I visited the Checkerboard yesterday and what an atmospheric experience it was. There’s an easy way to get there. A path from opposite the public toilets at the top of the hill leads at the board. Locals have made handrails and put flag stone steps. No fences to jump 🙂
That’s an improvement, though it takes away the adventure!
I noticed 2 sides to the checkerboard. The side that’s still visible to everyone is the side facing HK island. The side angled more towards Cheung Chau has more or less been reclaimed by nature as of April 2019 and that’s the side pilots would spot on their approach.
I flew into Kai Tak a few times and the approach over Kowloon City was so low and slow you could look through peoples windows and spot them watching TV. The wings looked as though they would scoop the washing off their balcony washing lines too.
I recall at least one flight ended up in Kowloon Bay.
As a pilot with Big Airways from 1967 On B707’s then B747’s, I remember well the visual approach from Chung Chau NDB. The track was then by Stonecutters NDB towards the famous chequerboard. When you thought it was time to make the final turn, you waited another 8 seconds then turned. You then overflew the sports ground of King George V grammar school (in several photos) and used the VASI/PAPI glidepath lights to descend to the runway. The introduction of the IGS was a huge improvement, but urguably required less skill. It was, of course, much safer.
Thanks for that interesting piece of info, as to how the approach was flown before the IGS system was put in place! The IGS, itself, is so intriguing to me (how they combined a traditional ILS with the last visual part).
Hats off to all the Aviators that landed at that airport. I was called fun, but you sure paid attention.. C.Heller Pan Am
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