Sunday, January 8, 2012

Around the World: Entering Asia

January 8, 1992

The $4 shuttle exploded into a cloud of steam on the way to the airport.  After a bit of road side maintenance, I finally made it to Sydney International Airport, where I spent several hours queuing in a variety of different lines before finding my seat on the plane.

Before the journey north to Hong Kong begins, we are headed 800 km south and west to Melbourne so everyone can get off the plane and wait in the departure lounge for a couple of hours.

Once the passengers have boarded again in Melbourne and the obligatory safety presentation is out of the way, I plug my headphones into the seat and I am treated to a little Inflight channel comedy.

"Attention passengers, this is your Captain speaking.  We are currently at an altitude of 33,000 feet at a cruising speed of 850 km/hr.  If you look out the windows on the left side of the plane, you will see...  the Pacific Ocean.  

If you look out the windows on the right side of the plane, you will see the Pacific Ocean and a tiny yellow dot.  Inside that yellow dot are four smaller black dots.  Those dots are me and my crew.  We hope you enjoy your flight."

747 on final approach to Kai-tak (Hong Kong International Airport)
Photo by Ywchow

This my first flight on Cathay Pacific and the treatment of the passengers is phenomenal.  The kids on board have all been given a complimentary knapsack with crayons, a watch, a pencil case, deck of cards and a booklet of games and puzzles.  I admit, I'm a little jealous.  The cabin crew are ever so attentive, and this is Economy.  I imagine first class probably has a jacuzzi and masseuse. 

The approach into Hong Kong includes a breathtaking view of the city.  On a hillside, in the distance are lights in the shape of a huge dragon.  It's dark and difficult to make out details of the city, but I can see we are pretty close to tall buildings.  By close, I mean I can see televisions that are on through the buildings' windows.  The airport's only runway, I've learned, is the shortest in the world, and at the end of it, is Victoria Harbour. 

I'll be back to explore Hong Kong in a few weeks.  Tonight, the airport will be my home.  I'm flying out tomorrow for Bangkok, Thailand to meet up with some familiar faces from home.

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Some interesting facts about the approach to Kai-tak Airport
(no longer in operation):

Photo by Toblerone

The runway at Hong Kong's Kai-tak International Airport is 3390 m long.  
"Larger aircraft including widebodies (an airliner with two passenger aisles) will usually require at least 8,000 ft (2,400 m) at sea level and somewhat more at higher altitude airports. International widebody flights, which carry substantial amounts of fuel and are therefore heavier, may also have landing requirements of 10,000 ft (3,000 m) or more and takeoff requirements of 13,000 ft (4,000 m)+." (Source:

Kai-tak International Airport moves 29 million passengers and 1.5 million tonnes of freight annually.   


Less than 10 km to the north, the terrain reaches an altitude of 2,000 feet (610 m).  Just across the street from the runway are buildings up to 6 stories tall.  The hills less than 5 km to the northeast, and to the south just beyond Victoria Harbour, top out at 2,100 feet (640 m).  


On a typical approach, the aircraft passes over the densely populated area of Western Kowloon.  This leg of the approach is guided by an IGS (Instrument Guidance System, a modified ILS).

A small hill marked with a red and white checkerboard is used as a visual reference point on the final approach (in addition to the IGS).  Just two nautical miles from touchdown, the pilot needs to make a 47° visual right turn, starting at a height of 660 feet and ending at a height of 140 feet, lining up with the runway just shortly before touchdown. This maneuver is widely known among pilots as the "Hong Kong Turn" or "Checkerboard Turn". (Source:

Hong Kong Kai-tak International Airport approach.
Photo by Derek Yung

Under ideal circumstances, landing at Kai-tak airport is challenging.  The mountains to the northeast of the airport cause wind to vary greatly in both speed and direction, as do strong crosswinds during typhoon season. Hong Kong is not a place that typically experiences ideal weather conditions.


The last flight occurred on July 6, 1998, when Kai-tak was officially closed, and replaced by Chep Lap Kok, located 30km to the west.