Kai Tak Aerodrome Part 1 – Kai Tack Bund
In the early days of flying, there were no paved runways, just large flat areas allowing take-off and landing to suit the prevailing wind conditions. Initially there was little interest from the Hong Kong Government to identify a suitable site within the territory for an aerodrome as flying was seen as a niche interest with little practical use. In 1911 a new regulation prevented any aviators from taking off from Hong Kong Island and harbour without written permission from the Governor, but the rule did not apply to the New Territories[i]. Thus, in March 1911 the first demonstration of powered flight was undertaken by Mr Van den Born who flew a biplane across the mud flats of Shatin.
Over the following years, interest in aviation grew within the colony and demonstration flights were undertaken from Shatin, Happy Valley, and sea planes at an ‘Air Day’ at Repulse Bay attended by the Governor. With the advent of aerial warfare during the First World War and the development of the large airships, aviation was becoming a military and commercial opportunity. With the increasing prospects of ‘around the world’ races, exhibition events, and a weekly London – Hong Kong airship service[ii], Hong Kong needed a permanent airfield if it was to embrace the new transport technology.
With the advance in aeroplane development, the prospect of regular flight schedules was becoming a realistic prospect. However, there were competing technologies; airships, the most famous being the Zeppelin, were operating long distance commercial services, and seaplanes and flying boats were being used for commercial services from 1923 along with small land-based aircraft. The latter were recognised for their speed and agility but the smaller planes required a landing field of around 460m (1500ft) while the larger planes requiring at least 914m (3,000ft) pointing into the direction of the prevailing wind[iii].
The focus of early civil aviation was for airmail services, addressing the needs of the postal services, providing faster delivery of mail across the globe, while passenger travel was a secondary benefit. If the mail loads were heavier than expected, passengers would not be accommodated on the flight. In this context, sea planes were seen as the future for long distance flights opening the prospect of regular mail flights and direct links to other cities.
Kai Tack Bund
Building land has always been in short supply around Victoria Harbour, resulting in the adoption of extensive reclamation projects starting in 1851 with reclamation between Wilmer Street and Bonham Strand West, followed by the East Praya reclamation in 1873, Causeway Bay in 1884, and Kennedy Town in 1886. With the acquisition of the Kowloon peninsula in 1860, the land south of Boundary Street was dominated by military facilities, limiting the land available for commercial and residential development. This changed with the extension of the colony with the lease on the New Territories in 1898, provided a new source of land for development in what was known as New Kowloon, an area of 15.7 square miles.
The shallow waters at the head of Kowloon Bay were identified as an ideal site to reclaim land for a garden city development. First conceived by the famous diplomat Dr Wu Ting-fang the development was promoted by Sir Kai Ho who was a successful barrister and physician[iv]. He founded the Alice Memorial Hospital in memory of his English wife and undertook extensive community work. A Knighthood followed in 1912 for his part in founding the Chinese Medical College, the forerunner of the University. Together with Mr Au Tack, an entrepreneur, property developer, and son-in-law, they formed the Kai Tack Land Investment Company in 1912. Their proposal was to reclaim part of Kowloon Bay to establish a ‘residential district for better-class Chinese’[v]. The development was to be known as the ‘Kai Tack Garden City’ and later as ‘Kai Tack Bund’, with sacred rocks and the historic Sung stone on the west, Lion Rock to the north and the sea to the south. The site had good fung shui for the 47 land lots with each occupying an area ranging from 179,999 square feet to 200,000 square feet. The site would use the spelling Kai Tack until adopting the current spelling of Kai Tak in December 1941.
The development formed part of a large plan for the wider area, with private development on the sea front, industrial and residential accommodation to the north, and community facilities, including schools, markets, recreation and a new gaol. All these were reliant on the initial implementation of the Kai Tack Bund reclamation.
The project utilised a reclamation of 230 acres, requiring around 2.5 million m3 of spoil to create the site of which 151.38 acres was for development with the remainder to be handed over to the Government for roads, streets and nullahs[vi]. The project required the construction of four nullahs to drain the surrounding villages and agricultural hinterland although they would in reality become open sewers for the later uncontrolled developments. Each nullah structure was piled to limit settlement, and at 10.7m wide, were the largest in the territory. Either side of the nullahs were to be 12m wide roads connected by regular bridges spanning across the waterways. A seawall was constructed along the southern boundary with a planned 30m wide road behind it to service the developments.
Work on the project commenced in March 1916 and initially good progress was made on site with the project on programme to be completed within five years. Material for the reclamation was excavated from the low hills of To Kwa Wan. The fill from the 45m high ground was then moved to site on a construction railway using narrow-gauge steam locomotives and locally fabricated spoil cars. Fill for the eastern portion was taken from the surrounding hills.
By 1920 sufficient reclamation had been completed to allow the commencement of building construction on the west side. The company soon ran into financial problems however, and Sir Kai Ho who had died in July 1914, was heavily in debt at the age of 55 and Au Tack had died in September 1920 at the age of 79/80. To raise funds, in 1920 an area of 15.244 acres of the completed eastern portion of the site was sold to the Government for $115,470. This was to be the site of a new gaol[vii]. Progress on the remaining reclamation had stalled with just over 50% being completed.
It was hoped that the development would be very popular with the growing Chinese upper class, but in reality, the area was mosquito infested, had poor air quality in the summer as a result of the raw sewage from the hinterlands, and there was little demand for the vacant lots.
With little work on the main reclamation, work progressed on the four nullahs and the associated bridge crossings along with the rubble mound and sea wall for the completed works. By 1925 all works on the reclamation had been suspended following the Kai Tack Land Investment Company entering into liquidation in 1924.
In 1923 the reclamation works at Sham Sui Po required the relocation of the junk boat construction and repair yards. The Town Planning Committee recommended a new reclamation of around 20 acres be undertaken on the east side of the Kowloon Bay to provide a permanent accommodation for the important industry[viii]. The new reclamation would provide for 15 slip-yards of 24m wide. Progress was poor due to ill health amongst the workers as a result of malaria and the contract was terminated in March 1927 with around 75% of the reclamation complete. The site would look unfinished for many years to come.
Not Such A Flying Start
Following Mr Van den Born’s flight in 1911, there was little else except for occasional visiting exhibition fliers until 1919, when Mr Lim On, a successful Canadian-Chinese business man arrived in the territory in January 1921. He brought with him a Curtis JN-4, known as a Jenny a convertible biplane with the ability to land on both land and sea. The plane was developed as a training aircraft for the US Army during the First World War and in the aftermath, was sold cheaply to private owners. A flying exhibition was arranged at Happy Valley racecourse for the following month to raise money for the North China Relief Fund. The excited aviator left the Kowloon hangar where the plane, ”, had been assembled at 1pm and took off from a site adjacent to the KCRC railway line, after crossing the harbour to circle around the valley. The master of ceremonies, a Mr Ross (acting Secretary of Chinese Affairs) waved a red flag to signal the plane to land. Approaching from the sea, the plane descended, but hit turbulence as it passed East Point Hill and was unable to rise with a crash being inevitable. Choosing the safest landing site he crashed into a tree on the side of the YMCA tennis court, (some reports state this was a basket-ball court) wrecking the plane but with the pilot escaping unhurt[ix].
The plane’s wreckage was put into store awaiting someone to rebuild the broken machine.
Kowloon City Field
With the completion of the western portion of the Kai Tack Bund reclamation, property construction commenced and in 1921 sufficient reclamation of Crown Land had been completed to allow the construction of a mat-shed market to serve Kowloon city. But large areas of the reclamation were left empty.
That was until February 1924 when a young American, 24-year-old Colonel Harry Abbott (Colonel by virtue of that title being given to him by Sun Yat Sen.), an experienced pilot and daredevil arrived in the territory from Canton.[x] Having learned to fly in America, he had been recruited to train Chinese pilots at a new flying school in Canton and now he was to thrill the Hong Kong locals with his aeroplane stunts, establish a flying school and a prospective airmail service.
He purchased the wreckage of “Jenny” for $2,000 and with the assistance of Reg Earnshaw, his 24-year-old mechanic, they rebuilt the plane in the Kowloon Theatre, with the plan fly the plane again in April 1924. The initial trials of the rebuilt plane took place in the land adjacent to the KCRC in Kowloon. However, due to a series of mishaps on the railway grounds the plane was transferred to the Kai Tak reclamation in May 1924 where more space was available. The wings were removed for the transfer and after re-erection on the 31 May at 9:30am much to the surprise of the local residents, Harry took off and flew around Kowloon and Victoria, returning to make a perfect landing, the first recorded flight from the reclamation. The following day, with Mr Lim Wu (the brother of Lim On and fellow flying instructor from Canton) piloting and Harry as a passenger, the plane hit a ditch resulting in the plane summersaulting over. There were fortunately no serious injuries but provided more work for Reg, and it was the first recorded crash[xi].
In September, 1924 a second plane arrived at Kai Tak, a Curtiss, the same as Harry Abbott’s plane, purchased by Mr Rowe, manager of the Hongkong and Kowloon Taxicab Company[xii] and a keen flyer.
Renting an area of the reclamation from the Kai Tack Land Investment Company, Abbott established the The Abbott School of Aviation in January 1925 and arranged for a formal inauguration on the 25 January, 1925 during Chinese New Year. The programme commenced at 2:30pm with the christening of his new plane, ‘Felix the Cat’ a three-seater Curtiss Oriole [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curtiss_Oriole] recently purchased in Manila. Exhibition flights were then undertaken culminating in a parachute jump by Reg, the mechanic. This did not go well as Earnshaw missed the reclamation, landed in the sea and drowned – Kai Tak’s first fatality.
Abbott would promote direct flights to Manila and Shanghai using large multi-engine Curtiss flying boats he had purchased in Manila but by the summer of 1925 he had run out of funds and his planes and flight school were put up for sale in September 1925. He returned to California where he built a successful flying operation. Unfortunately, in August 1930 at the age of 29 he was killed when his racing plane went into a high-speed stall and crashed to the ground.
Abbott may have left, but more aviators arrived, providing flights around the harbour and offering to drop advertising pamphlets over Hong Kong’s residents.
In October 1925 HMS Hermes arrived in the territory with her contingent of planes, to support the Royal Navy’s China Station fleet. The ship was equipped with Fairey IIID float-planes and Fairey Flycatchers, a carrier-based aircraft that could be converted to a float-plane . The aircraft were used to undertake pirate suppression air patrols along the China coast especially around nearby Bias Bay . The naval authorities found it necessary to establish some temporary mat sheds on the Kai Tak reclamation to support the maintenance of their aircraft. – While the aircraft were conveyed on Royal Navy vessels, the pilots and mechanics served with the Royal Air Force. In November 1925 the mat sheds were ordered to be removed by the naval authorities, but the Governor, Sir Cecil Clementi, instructed them to be taken over and maintained by the colonial government for the aviators[xiii].
Washington Naval Treaty
To prevent a naval arms race in the Pacific, in February 1922 the five governments of Great Britain, the United States, France, Italy and Japan agreed to limit the construction of naval ships and under Article 19 to prohibit the British, Japanese and Americans from constructing new fortifications or naval bases in the Pacific region. The treaty was negotiated in Washington during November 1921 and concluded in February 1922, known as the Washington Naval Treaty[xiv]. This treaty would cast a shadow over all decisions related to the development of Kai Tak.
Kai Tak – A Civil Aerodrome
The provision of an aerodrome for Hong Kong was first raised in late 1925 by the Air Ministry [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Ministry], the British Government department responsible for the Royal Air Force (RAF). It requested the Governor to provide a report on the practicality and costs of establishing an aerodrome in the territory. Sir Cecil Clementi responded in early 1926 with a considered proposal[xv].
His response noted that Canton was continuing to develop aviation and he anticipated aeroplanes would be used by the Chinese military in the near future. He noted that “they could, even now, fly over the Colony of Hongkong with complete impunity, must be a source of anxiety”. He noted that the official policy was that there was no significant risk from China as they possessed few aircraft so the provision of a military base could not be supported, or “In short, the Air Ministry will not, under present conditions attempt to establish an Air Base at Hongkong. If, however, commercial conditions were to call for a commercial air service at Hongkong, the Air Ministry would encourage such development”.
Given the constraints of the Washington Naval Treaty, the Air Ministry’s view was that establishing a base for sea planes or lighter than air vehicles (such as airships) would present fewer difficulties. However, the Governor proposed establishing a small fleet of planes for policing purposes. This comprised a fleet of four planes, fitted with two machine guns and the ability to carry light bombs, similar to the Fairey IIID sea planes carried by HMS Hermes, an air force in all but name.
Recognising that Kai Tak had already been used by the military and civilian operations and knowing the development had stalled, Sir Cecil Clementi requested authorities to commence negotiations to purchase the whole of the development from Kai Tack Land Investment Company. Funding would need to be arranged, $1 million for the land and $738,000 to complete the remaining reclamation. The aerodrome would occupy the central portion of the site, a square area of 526m by 560m, sufficient for small planes. The remaining land would be sold off for development to offset the original development costs.
Changing Regional Situation
Following the death of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese president, in 1925, his successor Chiang Kai-shek, started the military campaign ‘Northern Expedition’ to unify the north under a single government. This new military prowess, seem to come as a surprise to the British as it represented a significant risk to Hong Kong both militarily and from the large influx of refugees. Many of the latter were wealthy people from Canton who had purchased properties in Kowloon,[xvi] frightened by the extremist elements in control.
Given the developing military situation in China, the Committee of Imperial Defence agreed in January 1927 that the construction of the aerodrome was now urgent[xvii] and works could proceed without prior consultation with the United States and Japan in spite of the naval treaty.
During 1926 the Director of Public Works, Harold T Creasy, based on the requirements set by Wing Commander Leckie [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Leckie_(RCAF_officer)], further developed the initial proposal for the aerodrome for consultation in January 1927. The reclamation of the bay would be completed to provide a central area (area A) of 124.5 acres, 617m by 713m with flight gaps at B, C and D providing take off lengths greater than the minimum of 700m[xviii]. It was noted that area D lay outside the reclamation land and would need to be separately acquired.
Recognising the urgency of the developing situation in China and the unfinished state of the Kai Tak reclamation, the Admiralty in London contacted the Commodore Hong Kong to:
- Estimate the time and cost to enlarge Kai Tak to around 460m each way either in a L or other shape;
- Estimate the time and cost to prepare landing grounds elsewhere; and
- Recommend the best solution to support Fairey IIID land-based planes without undue delay.[xix]
Responding four days later, the Commodore advised that a suitable area could be prepared with the current Kai Tak reclamation in 3-4 months. An L shape area could be made available with a north south runway if the nullah was covered and low areas filled with around 11,500m3 of aggregate for an estimated cost of £4,000.[xx]
The Air Ministry agreed that a staged development of Kai Tak was the best approach. Thus, in early February 1927 they requested the Under Secretary of State Colonial Office to request the Governor to implement the works identified by the Commodore[xxi]. At the same time, informal consultations were undertaken with the American and Japanese governments on the development of the aerodrome. The response was positive, provided that no permanent facilities were constructed, both parties agreed that the works did not reflect an increase in the defences of Hong Kong.
In March 1927 a contract was let to Messrs Sang Lee and Co for the covering over of one nullah with concrete beams and slabs, completion of a small area of reclamation, and the preparation of the take-off and landing surface. The works were completed by September 1927 for a cost of $43,957[xxii].
On the 10th March, 1927[xxiii] a site adjacent to the nullah was handed over to the military for their new facility, ‘RAF Base Kai Tack’. The base consisted of less than three dozen personnel from the Royal Air Force and was equipped with carrier based Fairey IIID and Fairey Flycatchers. These aircraft were rotated on and off the China Station fleet Aircraft Carriers for maintenance and personnel rest and recreation between their annual cruises to north China i.e. Wei Ha Wei & Shanghai. A series of mat sheds were constructed for offices, maintenance facilities and aircraft hangars ensuring everything was temporary and in accordance with the Treaty. This would only change when the situation in China took another turn – occupation by Japan.
Thanks to IDJ for advice and background information
Maps from www.hkmaps.hk
Aerial Images from NCAP https://ncap.org.uk/
[i] Hongkong’s first aviation, Flying at Shatin, SCMP 17 Mar 1911
[ii] London to Hong Kong, Future of Aviation, Trans-Atlantic Flier Interviewed, SCMP 6 Feb 1920
[iii] Aviation in Hongkong: Enthusiastic Gathering at City Hall, Speech by Sir A W Brown, SCMP 4 Feb 1920
[iv] Reclamation in Hong Kong, The Far Eastern Review, February 1920
[v] Report of the Director of Public Works for the Year 1916
[vi] Report of the Director of Public Works for the Year 1916
[vii] Report of the Director of Public Works for the Year 1920
[viii] Report of the Director of Public Works for the Year 1923
[ix] Aeroplane Crash, Yesterdays Disappointment, SCMP, 14 Feb 1921
[x] Scrapbook Kai Tak, SCMP 06 Jun 1987
[xi] Hong Kong Aviation, Aeroplane Again Damaged, Three Successful Trails, SCMP 2 June 1924
[xii] Hongkong Aviation, Aeroplane Arrives, SCMP 13 Sep 1924
[xiii] Letter to Air Ministry from the Governor, 18th Feb 1926, CO129/498
[xiv] Washington Naval Treaty, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Naval_Treaty
[xv] Letter 18 Feb 1926, CO129/498
[xvi] A History of Hong Kong, G B Endacott, 1958
[xvii] Letter Foreign Office to Secretary of the Air Ministry, 22 Jan 1927 CO129/502
[xviii] Enclosure No 1 Report by the Director of Public Works, CO129/502
[xix] Telegram Admiralty to Commodore HK, 26 Jan 1927, CO129/502
[xx] Telegram Commodore HK to Admiralty, 30 Jan 1927, CO120/502
[xxi] Letter Air Ministry to Under Secretary of State, 3 Feb 1927, CO129/502
[xxii] Public Works Annual Report, 1927
[xxiii] History of RAF Kai Tak, G L D Alderson
This article was first posted on 21st February 2023.
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- Flying boats before Kai Tak runway opened – SCMP article
- Japanese Extension of Kai Tak aerodrome, BAAG reports, 1942-1944
- Kai Tak Airport 1925-1998
- Tai Koo Dockyard – 1950s general engineering including Kai Tak hangars, tramcars and wireless masts…
- Shield Force tasked with “cleaning up” Kowloon immediately after the end of the Japanese occupation, Part Two – KCR and Kai Tak