Approach to Runway 13 at Kai Tak International Airport in Hong Kong
One day I went out to try and find locations to take photos of the aircraft landing at Kai Tak. At the time I was shooting black and white with a Pentax 6x7 camera and doing the developing myself. Lots of work but also a lot of fun. For this photo I was on one of the small hills nearby. The plane had passed the checker board area and was making his turn to final approach.
Before you begin reading:
Watch this exciting compilation of landings at Kai Tak which very graphically shows the close proximity to the buildings, and then you'll better understand some of the things I'll discuss in this article. In other videos below I'll narrate what you are seeing as the approach is carried out with the camera in the cockpit.
Kai Tak Airport was built on reclaimed land at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula with the runway jutting out into Victoria Harbor. There is only one runway and it is facing in the easterly direction of 130 degrees (east southeast) and the opposite direction is 310 degrees (west northwest)
On the eastern end of the runway and all along the south and north side of the runway is Victoria Harbor.
The north and the west side is ringed by hills and mountains. That leaves very little margin for error. The final approach from west to east for runway 13 is over a large number of low rise buildings surrounded by higher buildings. You could use an analogy of threading a needle at 200 miles per hour.
The landing approach using runway 13 at Kai Tak was spectacular, world-famous, and dangerous. The turn onto the final heading for the approach had to be done with precision while also controlling airspeed and altitude. There is little room for error as you'll see in some of the videos.
There were several accidents with fatalities over the 70+ years the airport was in operation, and it finally closed in 1998.
This Google Earth map below shows the typography that we had to deal with as we flew our Pan Am 747's into Kai Tac. For a better understanding, I highlighted the following on the map:
On the Google Earth map photo you can see that the airport is already closed. The terminal and other buildings have been razed and all the low buildings in the final approach path were razed to make room for high rises now that the airport is no longer active.
Long Duty Days
When I was flying into Hong Kong I was flying the Pan Am Boeing 747. We flew non-stop from San Francisco, but sometimes, due to strong winds we had to stop at Taiwan for fuel. We had a double crew because the duty time would be up to 14 hours. The flights would leave San Francisco late in the afternoon, so the awake time would be much more than 14 hours, actually closer to 24.
Oviously when we arrived at Hong Kong we were not at our peak physical nor mental state, but we had to perform at our highest level. It required much advance planning, alertness, and crew coordination. However, with the double crew we were able to get a rest break on the airplane, and that really helped. We had two bunks just behind the cockpit.
Precision is the Key to Success
To make a successful approach and landing on runway 13 in low visibility and/or strong cross wind conditions, the Pan Am pilots had to know exactly what action were going to be taken at each step in the approach, and make sure that the thought process was several miles ahead of the airplane anticipating each upcoming action. So, if you reach the go-around point and don't see the Checker Board, then you immediately make a go around without giving it a second thought.
If you try to cheat a little, thinking you'll see it in a second, that's when you get into trouble. My philosophy was always that it is better to explain to my Pan Am Chief Pilot why I went around rather than try to explain why I damaged the aircraft. However, the strongest motivation for the Pan Am pilots to do it right was that we had the responsibility for the safety and comfort of our passengers.
(That philosophy carries over into my real estate business to this day. I feel the need to always do things right to make sure my clients are taken care of and that every precaution is taken to prevent errors.)
The approach to runway 13 is up Victoria Harbor on a heading that will take the aircraft toward the checker board. At a certain point you can descend to the minimum altitude which was about 600 feet. If you don't see the checker board by a certain point a go around is mandatory.
When the checker board is spotted, you keep flying toward that until the strobes and lead in lights are spotted. At that time a normal descent to the runway can begin at the same time as you make the turn to follow the lead in lights until the runway is in view.
On each side of the runway, there is a set of 4 lights at the target touch down spot of 1500 ft from the runway threshold.
On a couple of the videos, shot from the cockpit, you'll see those visual glide slope lights with the aircraft right on the glide path.
These photos below are great at full size. Due to copyright restrictions I'm requred to show them just as they are. So click on the photo and take a look at the large version.
In the photo below, you'll see that these buildings are residences, and they are right next to the airport. The airplane is over the runway overrun area, just short of the touch down zone. Down below and slightly behind the main wheels you'll see the airport control tower. You'll see it more clearly in the large version.
Consequence of Overshooting Turn to Final
Overshooting the turn to final sets you up for a lot of extra work and a potential hard landing with resultant damage to the landing gear, engine pods and wing tips at best; or ending up in the harbor at worst. If you're late turning, then naturally you overshoot the final heading. That means you must make a corrective turn back past the desired direction. Then as you get back to that desired path you have to make another corrective turn to capture that course. By that time you're almost at touch down point where any error is magnified ten fold.
If there is a cross wind the problem is greatly exacerbated, because you're not only having to make that turn to correct and line up with the runway but you also have to make the cross wind correction to make sure the plane lands headed straight down the runway.
This video (with audio) below shows the results of overshooting and the necessary last minute corrections in a cross wind resulting. The people taking the video are on top of one of the nearby buildings. Sometimes they go to one of the hills with a powerful lens to get different types of shots. Obviously photographing the planes landing at Kai Tak was a popular hobby with the locals and tourists. Especially on a windy day.
These aircraft can tolerate a lot of stress, but on a landing like that the mechanics will have to perform an inspection to check for damage. I've never had to do it, but it must be embarrasing to have to write up a "hard landing" in the maintenance log. It is required.
Good Approach Example
The best strategy is to slightly undershoot the heading to final approach. That way any correction is just a slight leveling of the wings to stop the turn until you're almost lined up and then make another slight correction.
This next video is an execellent example of that technique used during an approach in the rain with relatively low visibility.
This is inside the cockpit and with the audio on you can hear the pilots calling out "runway in sight", altitudes, and other things as they proceed through the approach and landing. You can also hear the tower talking to them.
The marjority of the landings in Kai Tak were like that, exciting but uneventful. Unfortunately, some were not so good.
The Concorde Missed Approach
Below, the Concorde got into difficulty in a cross wind, and made the very wise decision to go around.
Concorde Missed Approach (not at Kai Tak, but interesting)
Perfect Night Example
Next is a perfectly executed night approach from inside the cockpit.
Overshooting the Touchdown Zone
In 1993 the China Air flight was landing with 70 degree cross winds at 20 knots gusting to 40 knots, and there was wind shear reported which can cause serious changes in airspeed with a resultant loss of altitude. The airplane did not touch down within that 3000 foot touch down zone I showed you above. Instead of executing a missed approach at that time, he continued to land about 2100 feet past that touch down zone.
That left less room to stop, and there were a couple other mistakes that were made which caused hydroplaning (where the wheels are on top of the standing water on the runway and not getting sufficient traction to brake.)
He was then on a collision course with the Approach and Landing System at the end of the runway, so he elected to ground loop the airplane so it would turn and go off the runway sideways to miss that ALS. There were 22 minor injuries in this accident.
About 13 minutes prior to this approach a British Airways flight had refused to make the approach because of the current condition with the reported wind shear.
Sometimes a pilot will take the risk thinking he may be criticized for going around, or having to inconvenience the passengers by going to an alternate airport. The intentions are honorable, but the judgment is faulty and as in this case the risk can turn out to be disastrous. By refusing the approach under those conditions and going to an alternate, the passengers would have been inconvenienced ---- but they would have been safe.
This was a long article, and if you worked your way through it, I do hope it was both educational and interesting. Sorry it didn't have any sex in it. But be patient. I have a nude self portrait I'm trying to locate :-)
For any pilots who have not been to Kai Tak, below are some approach charts to check out:
Jeppesen Approach Plates
I'm in the process of writing a book, half of which will be about the non-aviation phase, and the rest will be about the aviation phase of my life, and I'll tell as many stories as I can recall that I hope people will find interesting, and will give younger generations more insight into Pan Am the once greatest airline in the world.
I'm requesting that if anyone wishes to make any suggestions about what should be in the Pan Am section, or in any other section, that can make the book more interesting, I'm open to all suggestions. For information or to offer suggestions, send an email to Pan Am Captain Bill Travis My goal is to have the book completed in ebook form by the end of July 2013.
Other Blogs about Aviation and Pan Am:
Pan Am, Most Exciting and Dangerous Approach and Landing
PAN AM, by Captain Bill Travis, Pan Am Retired
PAN AM, MOST EXCITING & DANGEROUS APPROACH & LANDING, by Captain Bill
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