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Runway 13 at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport (closed in 1998 and replaced by the current airport at Chek Lap Kok) had a hideously difficult approach in which pilots would fly in from the west, following an instrument guidance system (IGS)1 to the approach’s middle marker (also helpfully marked by a giant checkerboard painted on a hillside, which, if not spotted in time, required a missed approach), and then immediately hand-fly a steep right turn2 at very low altitude directly over the heart of Kowloon City to line up, seconds before landing, with the runway, using only the Mk. I eyeball for guidance, with no room at all for error.

For obvious reasons, only the best of the best pilots were allowed to shoot the bent approach to runway 13, and only after extensive simulator training for that specific approach, and even they had considerable trouble with it, even in good weather.

The bent approach was necessitated by the presence of an inconsiderately-placed mountain in what would otherwise have been the runway 13 approach path, which, for a straight-in approach, would have forced the use of a glideslope too steep for a widebody jetliner to safely fly. Not all aircraft (or even all airliners) are widebody jets, though, and smaller, higher-performance aircraft (including virtually all STOL aircraft) can frequently shoot approaches much (much) steeper than what would be safe for a 747 or A330.

Given the difficulty and hazard of the standard bent approach, did Kai Tak have a straight-in approach to runway 13 for use by steep-approach-certified aircraft?


1: Like an ILS, except that following the IGS all the way down would kill you.

2: I don’t know if the Kai Tak checkerboard turn would technically qualify as a pylon turn, but it must surely have come close!

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    $\begingroup$ The reason for the off-axis approach was a rather inconveniently placed mountain, so there was no way to make one. Also, 747 is a high performance aircraft, the deciding criterion for this purpose being the landing speed. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Mar 25 at 6:28
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    $\begingroup$ "inconsiderately-placed mountain" I must complement you on your writing. While some of your questions have been closed, they've all been entertainingly well written. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Mar 25 at 20:24
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did Kai Tak have a straight-in approach to runway 13 for use by steep-approach-certified aircraft?

During the 1990s I regularly flew the Hong Kong IGS approach in 747s. At that time, to the best of my knowledge, there was no straight-in approach to runway 13.

only the best of the best pilots were allowed to shoot the bent approach to runway 13, and only after extensive simulator training for that specific approach, and even they had considerable trouble with it, even in good weather.

While the above might have been true for some carriers, it was not true (Wikipedia to the contrary) for the two 747 carriers I worked for. Cathay Pacific might have had some such requirement as that was their home base.

Go to https://terryliittschwager.com/talking-of-flying.php#kaitak for an account of my first time in.

Wikipedia has another error or at least a poor choice of words IMHO when they say that upon reaching the checkerboard hill you started the turn toward the runway. if you look at the approach plate, you'll see the turn starts well before the checkerboard. The rule was that you had to have the checkerboard in sight ahead before starting the turn. If you didn't it was missed approach time. Fortunately I never had to do that.

to the eternal gratitude of non-masochist pilots everywhere) had a hideously difficult and dangerous approach

I never considered the approach dangerous. Challenging, yes, but not dangerous. And I'm really not a masochist or at least I didn't think of myself as such. After you got used to it, it was fun!

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    $\begingroup$ Elsewhere on the internet, it is customary to warn people when a link leads to tvtropes.org because it can be a huge inadvertent time sink. Your site is the aviation equivalent :) $\endgroup$ – AEhere supports Monica Jul 23 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @AEhere – having just read every anecdote on it, I agree with you. Given that Terry doesn't think that this special approach procedure was "that bad", why is that we've never seen it anywhere else -- did technology improve everywhere else, or was it just the geopolitical uniqueness of Hong Kong that made it a one-off? $\endgroup$ – Landak Aug 22 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Landak It's geopolitical; Hong Kong is a bunch of mountainous islands, and Kai Tak was put on one of the only large, flat surfaces available within the colony. They had no alternative at the time. Without the political issues, they would have just put the airport on the mainland. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Aug 22 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ It’s a sad thing they no longer maintain the checkerboard pattern. $\endgroup$ – vasin1987 Aug 26 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ @vasin1987 I always thought it would be nice to have a park around it, and with so much history involving Kai Tak, it could make a memorial of sorts. $\endgroup$ – Terry Aug 26 at 6:24
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I believe the main issue why a straight in approach was not feasible was the proximity to mainland China border to the north and west.. less than 30kms to the north if I remember correctly. Also Macao (also to the west) had its own airport and approach/departure patterns complicating matters. You need to check and older map which shows the boundaries of Macao and Hong Kong to get an idea of how tight space really was.

A Glideslope of 3 degrees is normal. 3.5degress occurs and some 4 degrees (RWY31R MRS for example). What is desired is a rate of descent not more than 1000ft/minute and jets cannot really do that easily on anything more than a 3.5 degree glideslope with autoland. I believe London City (LCY) has a Glideslope of 5deg but I have no experience of that.

It is not true that only the 'best' were allowed to fly the Rwy13 approach, a lot of airlines practiced an RQ or 'route qualification' where a pilot needed to fly an approach under supervision of someone who has been there before. Even First officers are given landings there.

Alan Dow.. What usually happens when a pilot unfamiliar with HKG flies in is that the tenancy to start the turn the moment you see the runway on your right is very strong .. remember the checkerboard is coming up real fast! so you make an early right turn (1000-1200ft AGL) and then realise the runway is to your left and you need to get your shit together as you're running out of time, distance and altitude so its a hard bank to the left to get lined up on the runway...hence you see airplanes making all sorts of messy landings.. Alitalia, Malaysian and China Airlines have videos/pictures of how messy it gets. Every pilot new to HKG was briefed on not to make the turn too early but most people did anyway.

Terry.. HKG being the homebase of Cathay, I would imagine all their pilots including F/Os could do it in their sleep as HKG would be every other landing for them.

For those who are interested, this is the checkerboard today.. https://goo.gl/maps/DdpgGJzUrqEvbBXe8

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