Remembering Hair-Raising Landings at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport

Kai Tak International Airport operated in Hong Kong from 1925 to 1998. It was an unusual airport even for the small planes of 1925, built inside a bowl surrounded by mountains. The city grew up around the airport until it was ringed by skyscrapers as well as mountains. Then as commercial airline traffic increased, a runway was constructed outward into Victoria Harbor in 1958. Runway 13/31 eventually became the single busiest runway in the world, with 36 takeoffs and landings per hour. And those landings were so terrifying, a name was coined for them: the Kai Tak Heart Attack.

An aircraft with clearance to land on Runway 13/31 began its approach across Victoria Harbor, home to one of the world’s busiest ports, and densely populated Kowloon. Upon sighting “Checkerboard Hill”—an orange-and-white painted marker above a park—the pilot veered right. This low-altitude, 47-degree turn took place at nearly 200 miles per hour, just two nautical miles from the runway. From there, the aircraft shot over apartment buildings and bustling streets—in addition to plane-spotters on the roof of Kai Tak’s parking garage, before the wheels touched finally touched down, probably with an audible sigh of relief.

Typhoon season only complicated those maneuvers. Read about the erstwhile Kai Tak airport and see pictures taken through its history at Atlas Obscura.

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