Video: Landing the Checkboard approach to Hong Kong Kai Tak airport

Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport shut down in 1998, but its memories will remain for a long time.

One of the most famous memories of Kai Tak, thrilling and yet terrifying, was the approach to Runway 13. Be you a pilot or a passenger, you either loved it or were terrified by it. There was no middle ground.

To land on runway 13, an aircraft first took a descent heading northeast. The aircraft would pass over the crowded harbour, and then the very densely populated areas of Western Kowloon, and at the very end perform the “Checkerboard Turn”.

Checkboard Turn
Upon reaching a small hill marked with a checkerboard in red and white, used as a visual reference point and in addition to the middle marker signal on the Instrument Guidance System, pilots executed a sharp 47° visual right turn and along with the turn had to line up with the runway and land. Requiring accurate performance in all three axes of movement, a pilot entered the turn just two nautical miles (3.7 km) from the runway, typically at a height of just 650 feet (200 m) while continuing to descend and turn. Completing the turn at a height of just 140 feet (43 m) which is just about a 12 floor building, the pilot had just a few seconds to line up with the runway. There was no room for error.

If this was not hard enough, very often there were cross winds and landing the runway 13 approach became a serious challenge. It was very common for airlines to deploy their “top guns” on the Hong Kong flight.

For spectators too, watching 300+ tonne planes perform these banks at low altitudes and taking big crab angles (to compensate for cross winds) during their final approaches was always a thrill.

Despite the difficulty, due to prevailing wind conditions, runway 13 was used most of the time. Here is a view from the cockpit. Observe the turn and then how little time the pilots have after the turn to do the final adjustments to align the plane to the runway. Do keep in mind, there is no ILS landing system available.

In comparison landing at the new Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) at Chep Lap Kok is almost clinically sterile.

Another Kai Tak video I recommend you view is this one.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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