Kai Tak Heart Attack

Prev Next

In yesterday's post Fire Hoses,Steven Taylor of Acoustic Energy and yours truly wound up in the cockpit of a 747 jumbo jet landing at one of the trickiest airports in the world, Kai Tak in Hong Kong. Unbeknownst to either of us, Kai Tak was the 6th most dangerous airport in the world; certainly one of most challenging for any pilot. To land at Kai Tak pilots would essentially fly straight into a mountain, veering right at the exact moment necessary and landing immediately afterwards. Here's a description from Wikipedia: "The pilot needed to make a 47 ° visual right turn to line up with the runway and complete the final leg. The aircraft would be just twonautical miles(3.7km) from touchdown, at a height of less than 1,000 feet (300m) when the turn was made. Typically the plane would enter the final right turn at a height of about 650 feet (200m) and exit it at a height of 140 feet (43m) to line up with the runway. This maneuver has become widely known in the piloting community as the "Hong Kong Turn" or "Checkerboard Turn". Amongst passengers it became known as the "Kai TakHeart Attack". They weren't kidding as I have seen many a white knuckle as a passenger. But now we were no longer passengers. We were in the cockpit of the world's largest passenger airplane, the mighty 747-400, and sitting behind the captain who reminded me of Jean Luc Picard. The copilot even looked a bit like Will Riker, but I could have made that up. No matter, we had our headsets on, we watched breathlessly as the crew started preparing for this landing. "So when we start the landing sequence I need both of you to sit quietly and just watch. This is a very difficult landing and it takes all the concentration we have to manage it. We are going to runway 13 (great naming) which requires us to essentially fly straight into the mountain, right behind Kowloon, and then make a sharp right turn and land the plane." Fly into a mountain? You mean as in fly into a mountain? From the passenger's vantage point you see none of this mountain stuff and probably for good reason. Up until this point we had been chatting and asking questions about the plane but now it was time to hush up and watch. The captain was one of the most confident men I have met so I was just intent on watching this operation feeling entirely confident of the outcome. As we approached our mountain, I could look directly at the back of the captain's head (which was bald) and could see beads of sweat building up on his neck and head; glistening in the dark cabin as he operated the controls. Sweat didn't seem like a good thing. Not something a confident man would do pulling this beast safely into Hong Kong. My heart began to race. What had I gotten us into? There was no turning back now. As we approached we were getting low. I mean, really low. Will Riker called out the altitude every few seconds. Jean Luc gripped the wheel with both hands while Riker adjusted the 4 engines at his command to lower the speed. The ground was rushing up, the mountain was looming and soon we could see our target. On the hill right in front of us was a checkerboard pattern embedded in the side of the hill behind the city of Kowloon. We were aiming straight for the target and low enough that there appeared to be no opportunity to change minds about this landing. We were committed. I was scared to death. I have never been scared on a plane in my life. I love to fly. Sure, I've been bounced around enough on planes that I've gripped the seat and been nervous; but never scared. I was scared. The captain's sweating and holding onto the wheel with the grip of death, the copilot is calling out the altitude as we lower down to under 1000 feet and then the pilot revved the engines up and made the sharp right turn skidding the back of the plane around. I hung on for dear life unable to even speak. Steven looked ashen. Let me tell you something. Until you're looking out the front windshield of a plane watching such a turn, gripping the chair with all your might, not sure if the wing isn't going to scrape the tops of the buildings because you're so low, you have no idea what this looks like. I don't think I was even breathing. Picard straightened the plane out, quickly reduced the engine speed and set this 6 story beast down like you might put a baby onto a pillow. We landed. Reverse thrusters, brakes and then sitting in line behind the other planes waiting our turn at the gate. What a ride. What an experience. As Steven and I exited the plane we walked in stunned silence along with the other passengers and then just stopped. We both hugged each other and then high fived. This was truly an experience for both of us neither will ever forget. Traveling can be cool. It was on to visit the dealers. SIGHTSEERS AND PLANE LOVERS WATCH FINAL FLIGHTS AT KAI TAK AIRPORT
Back to blog
Paul McGowan

Founder & CEO

Never miss a post


Related Posts

1 of 2