Kai Tak Aerodrome – Part 2 Construction
Tymon Mellor: Spurred by the looming civil war in China, the partially complete Kai Tak reclamation became a temporary RAF facility in 1927. Both the British and Hong Kong governments wanted to construct a dedicated aerodrome but limited financial resources tempered their enthusiasm. While discussions on funding continued, solutions to completing the reclamation and the design of the proposed aerodrome continued.
With the conflict in China developing into civil war, the Air Ministry agreed to a phased development of the Kai Tak Aerodrome. With an initial financial outlay by the Hong Kong Government, sufficient land was acquired to establish the RAF base at Kai Tak in March 1927. However, as reminded by the Governor in February 1927, “I should like to know if His Majesty’s Government is bearing any part of £4,400 involved in the work now in hand or in the cost of [land] acquisition and if so, how much”[i]. The temporary RAF base was constructed on private land, the owner the Kai Tack Land Investment Co. having previously gone into liquidation in 1924.
A number of issues need to be resolved before a permanent aerodrome could be completed:
- Agreement from London to further develop the aerodrome;
- Acquisition of the existing land reclaimed by Hong Kong Government;
- Completion of the unfinished reclamation;
- Agreement for the aerodrome layout with the Air Ministry;
- Funding for the works, estimated to be just over $2 million; and
- Construction of the aerodrome infrastructure.
The Committee of Imperial Defence (chaired by the British Prime Minister) in April 1927 reviewed the proposal for the new aerodrome, but one member, Mr W. Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, did not agree. He did not consider the issue to be critical and that it may divert funds from more pressing projects. With an intervention from the Prime Minister, the committee concluded that “the immediate acquisition of the Kai Tak site for an aerodrome was most desirable for the reasons of Imperial Defence”[ii]. However, the question of who would fund the works was avoided, passing that responsibility to the Treasury and Air Ministry to resolve. This provided the necessary political backing for the works to proceed.
With the endorsement of the committee, the Secretary of State for the Colonies authorised completion of the reclamation, to be paid for by the colony[iii].
With approval to proceed with the aerodrome, the Hong Kong Government prepared to resume the completed 37 lots with a net area of 448,740m2. The representatives of the Kai Tack Land Investment Co., claimed $2 million for the land. However, they were persuaded to accept $1,001,250 and to avoid the need to proceed to the resumption board[iv].
A further 80 lots were resumed for the flight-gaps, an area of cleared approach to the aerodrome for a total of $39,735[v].
The initial proposal to complete the reclamation required the placement of 1.5 million m3 of fill to be locally sourced. This approach was forecast to take 3.5 years, and was considered to be too long.
In relation to this though, the Government was under pressure to address problems with inadequate draft in the harbour following complaints from shipping companies at the time. Dredging was required to lower high seabed levels at Belchers Ridge, Penguin and Rambler Shoals, and to improve the western approach. This would require the removal of 0.76 million m3 of material. By chance, the Netherlands Harbour Works Company had just completed a dredging contract in Macau, and had the necessary equipment on hand to undertake the work.
For an outlay of $753,000, the Netherlands Harbour Works Company was to complete the harbour dredging, complete 400m of sea walls at Kai Tak, and finish the reclamation with the dredged material, all within 18 months[vi] which would have been a ‘win-win’ situation. However, London initially saw this as a ruse to get cheap funding for the harbour works rather than as a cost-effective technical solution for the aerodrome, but after the alternative options were studied, all parties agreed that this was the best arrangement.
The contract for the dredging and reclamation works was signed on the 14 May 1927 with dredging commencing the following month. The dredging was undertaken to provide a draft of around 11m, and the removed material typically consisted of 60% sand, 15% mud and 25% shells. The total volume of material dredged was 1.1 million m3, and placed in the reclamation using the suction dredgers “Hankow” and “Canton”.
Around 85 acres of land was reclaimed, 400m of sea wall constructed and 675m of invert concrete placed in the existing nullahs along with 650m of masonry piers down the centre of the nullahs to allow for future decking. The dredging works were completed by July 1928 and the remaining works soon thereafter.
The initial layout for the aerodrome was developed by the Public Works Department in 1925 after identifying the land required. However, over the next 24 months, the layout was further developed as the aviation requirements became clearer. The first contribution to the layout came from an RAF flying officer R. Vaughan Fowler[vii], a gentleman who went on to be a driving force for commercial aviation in Hong Kong – more on him later.
His contribution at this stage in the project was to provide focus on the needs of seaplanes and flying boats, proposing a slip way to allow planes to be taken from the sea onto land and into a hangar. He also provided the first guidance on the operational aspect of the aerodrome, the sort of air services that could be offered and transportation arrangements to access the aerodrome.
By April 1928, a general layout referred to as Plan B for the aerodrome was ready for consultation with the Air Ministry in London[viii]. The layout addressed a number of site constraints:
- to the west, the main building works for the proposed gaol, whose foundations were completed earlier in 1923, had been suspended due to the poor financial situation of the colony;
- On the west side of the site was a triangle of land with the Kowloon City Police station and private buildings (these were subsequently demolished by the Japanese in 1943 as part of the aerodrome enlargement);
- An existing building known as Field Cottage to the north-west, the original home of the Hongkong Flying Club. was acquired by the military and became the RAF Officers Mess (the structure was later demolished in January 1936 as part of the northern extension to the aerodrome);
- An existing factory on the west side, which was acquired by the Government and sub-leased until 1936 when it was probably demolished around the same time as the Field Cottage.
The Governor had been requesting technical support from London since March 1928 with no success. After repeated requests, a specialist airfield designer was eventually identified, a Mr J. A. Dawson and he arrived in the territory at the end of September, 1928[ix]. Mr Dawson reviewed the PWD design and was generally supportive of the arrangement, but he did have a number of recommendations, including:
- Locating the buildings on the east side of the aerodrome was satisfactory, but combining the military and civilian buildings together was unacceptable as the RAF establishment would need to be separate from the civil establishment for security;
- The area shown for the combined accommodation would be needed for the RAF, and the civil establishment should be re-located to the western portion of the aerodrome where the current RAF temporary facilities were located; and
- The layout should provide for both RAF and civil organisations to accommodate both land and sea planes; and
- An additional strip of land should be acquired along the northern boundary to ensure a clear run-off.
Mr Dawson developed his own layout plan, referenced HK1 to address the shortfalls of the PWD design, but this introduced a number of new issues, including:
- The RAF establishment had been extended to the south east corner which was the site of the new gaol currently under construction. The piling works for the foundations had just been completed. The Government had invested nearly $400,000 in the scheme including land purchased from the Kai Tack Land Investment Company, to complete the sea wall and installation of the foundations. This cost had not been included in the aerodrome cost estimate;
- The original layout included surplus land that was not required for the aerodrome operation and was to be sold to fund the works, estimated at $50,000, and so the new design had no surplus space; and
- The RAF would take over the slip way that had been constructed for civil use, thus a new slip way would be required.
The changes proposed by Mr Dawson had been estimated to add an additional $230,000 to the existing cost estimate of $2.529 million.
The Hong Kong economy was not in good shape, battered by the problems in the mainland. In 1925-26 there had been a general strike, with a boycott of goods and shipping as the territory suffered anti-British sentiment in Canton[x]. The Government had to borrow money for the major capital works projects of Shing Mun Reservoir [https://industrialhistoryhk.org/hong-kong-water-supply-shing-mun-reservoir/] and had to extend the loan to cover the funds required for the initial reclamation works[xi].
The British Government was not in a much better state. The country was still struggling with the after effects of the First World War and with the changing situation in Asia with Japan in ascendance. The Washington Naval Treaty, limiting military expansion in the Pacific, was seen as a measure to limit expenditure. The British share of industrial production and world trade was in decline as other countries industrialised, removing the dependence on Britain[xii]. The Great Depression of 1929-1939 also compounded the problems.
Discussions on the approach to the payment of the aerodrome development would rumble on for years. The initial proposal, endorsed by the Hong Kong Finance Committee in April 1927, was for the territory to cover 25% of the cost and the British Government the remaining 75%[xiii]. By the summer of 1927 the Colonial Office and the Air Ministry agreed that the Hong Kong Government would contribute £125,000 with the Air Ministry picking up the remaining £150,000 less the money made from the sale of the surplus land, assumed to be £50,000[xiv]. This was not the deal Hong Kong wanted and it was to get worse. In early 1927, the 9,000 British population living in Shanghai was suffering as a consequence of the boycotts and troubles associated with the impending civil war. In January, 1927 the British Government agreed to send a contingent of British troops to provide additional security. Around 1,500 men were shipped to China to form the Shanghai Defence Force [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Defence_Force] to protect British interests[xv]. They would stay for most of the year. The air component of the force included Fleet Air Arm Flights aboard the carriers HMS Hermes (already on the China Station) and Argus. The cost of the Shanghai Expedition had to be funded by each of the three services participating, thus the Air Ministry had to dip into their savings for the expedition and had no funds for Kai Tak. The Air Ministry proposed that the Hong Kong Government pick up more of the bill or else the whole project be deferred “on financial grounds”.
With no money forthcoming from the Air Ministry, an alternative proposal was made in September 1927, with the Hong Kong Government borrowing more money to cover the shortfall and the Air Ministry paying back the loan in the following year[xvi].
In October, 1927 the Air Council, the governing body of the RAF, proposed to fund £120,000 with the Hong Kong Government picking up up the remaining £178,000. Any money made from the sale of spare land would be split with 75% being returned to the British Government[xvii]. In addition to these requirements, the layout of the aerodrome had to be approved by the Air Ministry, the land be made available to the RAF without rent, and the Air Ministry could decide what land could be released for disposal.
By January 1928 the Treasury had been consulted and they responded, noting the work undertaken to-date and the “vital importance to the Colony” of the aerodrome, by concluding that Hong Kong should be picking up more of the cost than the original 25%. They were however prepared to grant in aid the sum of £100,000, to be paid in two instalments of £70,000 in 1928 and the balance on completion[xviii]. This was equivalent to around $1 million.
To close the discussions on funding, the British Government advised “It is not usual for Air Ministry to meet any part of cost of civil aerodrome – and treaty obligations prevent establishment of military aerodrome”[xix]. You could probably hear the indignance and shouting from Upper Albert Road in Central, “It was their idea in the first place !”.
The Dawson layout provided 28 acres for the RAF while the commercial operation only had 12 acres. Given this imbalance, the Governor requested that the British Government should re-consider the approach to funding the works[xx], now approaching $3.1 million.
The response arrived in February 1929, there was no more money, it had to be made to work as a civilian operation, and the RAF will make do with what they have but the design was not to preclude accommodating Mr Dawson’s requirements in the future[xxi]. The discussion was over.
With the reclamation completed in the summer of 1928, work commenced on the construction of the infrastructure. The dredged material needed to be capped with decomposed granite to provide a stable surface, and this material was excavated from the hills of Tai Shek Ku Valley and a small hill upon which stood the Victoria Home and Orphanage that was relocated. A total of 580,000m3 of spoil was placed between 1929 and 1931 when the contract was completed, bringing the surface level up to around +4mPD, typically 1.5m higher than the surrounding fields. The surface was then grassed to control dust and reduce erosion.
Upgrading and decking of the nullahs 2 and 3 started in 1929 and was completed the following year. The eastern seaplane slipway, east of nullah 4, comprising of a concrete ramp 115m long and 12m wide, was constructed along with new access roads to the site[xxii]. The majority of the works were completed by 1930.
The RAF facility was established on the west side of the existing reclamation, primarily supporting the Fleet Air Arm, who was responsible for providing air power to the navy. Construction of the remaining reclamation continued through 1927 to 1930 to the east. The military facility consisted of temporary mat sheds for both the aircraft hangers and personnel accommodation. This arrangement was tested on the 20 August, 1927 when a typhoon passed 95km south of Hong Kong resulting in wind gusts of 187km/hr. The winds crossing the exposed Kai Tak area destroyed most of the mat sheds and damaged 19 of the 21 planes housed within[xxiii]. Fortunately, none were written off and all were subsequently repaired.
The living quarters were not so lucky as rain poured in and some of the sheds collapsed. The six officers and around one hundred men had to evacuate to the near-by Kowloon City Police Station, where they remained until they were transferred to the Peninsular Hotel, until the camp was reconstructed[xxiv].
Other than storms and rain, the mat sheds were also susceptible to fire. The situation was exasperated by the light-weight materials used in the planes, the petrol fuel and the chemicals used to dope the fabric covering the aircraft. Thus, mat shed fires were not uncommon, and in May 1932, there were two fires within one week[xxv].
Raymond Vaughan Fowler was one of the key players promoting commercial aviation in the late 1920s. Born in 1899 in the UK, he joined the Navy at 18 as a flying officer where he learned to fly and later became a commercial pilot. In 1922 as part of an “Air Mission” he went to Japan to train members of the Japanese Naval Aerial Service for two years before becoming a test pilot, then joined the RAF in 1923 and eventually stationed at Kai Tak as a Wing Commander.
Once in Hong Kong, Vaughan Fowler was active in developing and promoting aviation. He was an active contributor to the letters page of the local news and would regularly give presentations on aviation matters. He provided input into the development plans for Kai Tak and in 1928 proposed the establishment of a commercial airline. In one newspaper article, he noted “Owing to the dangers and difficulties experienced during the early years of aviation, and the high percentage of casualties in the flying services during the Great War, the public are rather apt to look upon flying as dangerous. Imperial Airways Ltd, during the last three years have not killed one paying passenger, and there have been no serious accidents in the British Commercial aviation during that period”[xxvi]. A ringing endorsement for air travel.
In the spring of 1928, Vaughan Fowler developed a detailed proposal to establish a company owned by the Hong Kong, Canton and Macau governments for the operation of regular air services between the regions. The company, to be titled Hong Kong Canton Airways or Far Eastern Airways Ltd would have an initial capital of $3.4 million and have exclusive rights to operate from Kai Tak, the provision of a free use of a hangar, free radio /meteorological service and an initial subsidy of $300,000 for the first five years.
The company would operate De Havilland 61 ‘Giant Moth’ or Canberra planes each carrying six passengers and 300 lb of mail, and also De Havilland DH60 Moth planes for taxi work each carrying one passenger or 200 lb of mail.
There would be daily services to Canton and Macau and a weekly service to Swatow (now ‘Shantou’), Amoy (now ‘Xiamen’), Foochow (now ‘Fuzhou’) and Shanghai.
Meetings were held with the Macau and Canton governments, and while Macau was keen to participate, the Canton authorities were hesitant, preferring to develop their own airline company[xxvii]. The proposal was not progressed, but it did initiate a number of other actions, notably the need for a hangar at Kai Tak, the importance of establishing airmail services and the Canton Government to procure aeroplanes.
Vaughan Fowler resigned from the RAF in December 1928 and started The Far East Aviation Co. Ltd (FEAC) with ex-Royal Australian Air Force Mr. F. R. Smith, selling planes, aviation services and flight training. Vaughan Fowler and the FEAC would lead in the development, flying in both Kai Tak and southern China in the pre-war years.
Given the limitations of the Kai Tak unfinished reclamation and the extent of the harbour, Vaughan Fowler promoted the idea of sea planes. He proposed forming the “” in the autumn of 1928, thereafter more generally known as the “Sea Plane Club”. By the summer of 1929 had purchased an Avian manufactured by A V Roe & Co fitted with a Hermes 115hp engine and floats. This plane was a metal body biplane and was the first plane to be registered in the territory as VR-HAA. Over the next few years over 44 of these aircraft would be purchased by FEAC with 36 being registered in Hong Kong.
The Light Sea Plane Club did not progress but from its momentum, the Hong Kong Flying Club was formed in 1929 and Vaughan Fowler was elected to the General Committee. The club suspended operations in 1933 to be replaced by the Far East Flying Training School, a subsidiary of FEAC, but more on this in the next part.
As for Vaughan Fowler, he left Hong Kong in 1935 and ended up in India, setting up the India Aviation Development Co Ltd in 1937. During the second world war, he re-joined the RAF as a Senior Aerodrome Officer and was responsible for the development of some 200 military airfields. In 1948 he took up residence in Rajkot for the better climate and became the editor of Indian Skyways magazine during the 1950s. He died in London in September 1959 one year after the opening of the new Kai Tak runway.
Trial Airmail Service
In December 1928, word reached London that the Canton Government was looking into undertaking a 10-day experimental airmail and passenger service between Canton and Kai Tak[xxix]. No doubt this proposal was a result of Vaughan Fowler being appointed an aeronautical adviser to the Canton Government[xxx]. The military were a little nervous, “We will keep watch on machines least they fly unnecessarily low over or attempt reconnaissance prohibited places. Steps will be taken by Government to ensure that no cameras are carried by machines”[xxxi].
The War Office was more relaxed and agreed to the trial provided that the Canton Aviation Bureaux agreed to comply with the flying conditions laid down in the Air Navigation (Colonies, Protectorates and Mandated Territories) Order in Council 1927[xxxii]. I can find no record of the trial undertaken but in relation, I have found out that in March 1929, the Nationalist Government signed a ten-year deal with China National Aviation Corporation using an American company flying American planes and initially American pilots to establish within six months airmail routes between Hankow and Canton, Hankow and Nanking / Shanghai and Hankow and Peking[xxxiii]. It would not be until March 1936 that Hong Kong got its first air mail service.
Kai Tak A Success Story
With the completion of the reclamation by 1931, Kai Tak aerodrome was ready to open up to the world, but it needed a few more features such as hangars and a control tower but within five years headlines would read “Hongkong as the World’s Leading Airway Base”[xxxiv]. More aspirational than fact, but from a slow start, it was about to become a key civilian and military airfield as well as the premier flight training school in Asia.
With reference to the Chinese mail service, IDJ advises:
On 26 August 1929, China Airways, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Intercontinent Aviation Inc., the parent company of Aviation Exploration Inc. was incorporated under the provisions of the China Trade Act of 1922, and Ernest B Price became the first president of China Airways the following week.
Progress after Harry Smith’s arrival in mid-August did not justify much optimism. The Chinese controlled China National Aviation Corporation failed to meet its obligations “to furnish, equip, police, maintain and have ready for operation adequate airports.” China Airways had been granted only a small piece of land far outside Shanghai’s urban perimeter at Lungwha on the muddy tidal banks of the Whangpoo River. This was just large enough for two bamboo hangars, a tool-shed repair-shop and an operations office built out of the crates the Loenings had been shipped in. To gain access to the site an Army garrison had to be crossed. However, the military prohibited access after 6 pm, and China Airways personnel could not obtain passes.
As for airmail, IDJ advises:
Airmail services to HK were held up to a large degree by politics and the old nonsense of “Reciprocal Rights” whereby “You can fly here, if you let me fly there!”
Burgeoning Pan American Airways was desperate to fly across the Pacific to reach Shanghai. However. it was thwarted by Chinese politics of the time barring any airline entry into any Chinese port. Primarily to keep the Japanese gaining any sort of foothold. So, Pan Am attempted to enter HK, but was blocked by the UK government looking after the interests of Imperial Airways that had yet to reach the colony. Pan American then built a substantial base at Macao to get a foothold on the mainland, but it was rarely used at the end of the day. The UK government eventually conceded entry to HK when the Americans became more amenable to Imperial Airways exploring crossing the Atlantic to reach the USA with their new Short Bros. flying boats, and concessions related to minor islands in the Pacific. Months after Imperial Airways started scheduled services to HK in 1936, Pan American and CNAC commenced scheduled services to and from HK.
While the UK government controlled access to routes to its colonies, Pan American was run by the charismatic airline visionary Juan Trippe solely as a commercial enterprise without any “official” US government backing for routes he envisioned for his ever expanding airline. Unusually, Trippe and his acolytes had to personally negotiate route accesses themselves.
[i] Telegram Governor to Sec of State for the Colonies, 17 Feb 1927, CO129/502/4
[ii] Committee of Imperial Defence, Hong Kong – Acquisition of Kai Yak Site for an Aerodrome, 6 April 1927, CO 129/502/4
[iii] Telegram Secretary of State for the Colonies to Governor, 9 Apr 1927, CO129/502/4
[iv] Public Works Annual Report 1927.
[v] Public Works Annual Report 1928.
[vi] Telegram Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 3 Mar 1927, CO129/502
[vii] Report on Kai Tak as a Civilian Air Terminus, R Vaughan-Fowler, 19 Aug 1927, CO129/508/8
[viii] Letter from the Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 25 Apr 1928, CO129/508/8
[ix] Letter from the Governor, 2nd Nov 1928, CO129/508
[x] A History of Hong Kong, G B Endacott, 1958
[xi] A Loan for the Shing Mun Valley Scheme, SCMP 24 Jun 1927
[xii] A History of Hong Kong, G B Endacott, 1958
[xiii] Telegram Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 4 May 1927, CO129/502/4
[xiv] Letter Air Ministry to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 7 Jul, 1927, CO129/502/5
[xv] Dispatch of Troops to China, 8 Mar 1927, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1927/mar/08/despatch-of-troops-to-china
[xvi] Letter Secretary of State for the Colonies to Air Ministry, 12 Sep 1927 CO129/502/5
[xvii] Letter 27 Oct 1927, CO129/502/5
[xviii] Letter Treasury to Secretary for Station of the Colonies, 11 Jan 1928, CO129/508/8
[xix] Telegram Secretary of State for the Colonies to Governor, 28 Jan 1928
[xx] Letter Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 2 Nov1928, CO129\508\8
[xxi] Letter Air Ministry to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 15 Feb 1929, CO129/514/1
[xxii] Report of the Director of Public Works for the year 1929
[xxiii] Telegram C in C China to Admiralty, 21 Aug 1927, CO129/502/5
[xxiv] Planes Damaged, Airmen Evacuated to a Police Station, SCMP, 22 Aug 1927
[xxv] Seaplane Hangar Destroyed, Fire Razes the Flying Club‘s Matshed, Blaze at Kai Tak, SCMP 3 May 1932
[xxvi] Civil Aviation for Hong Kong, R Vaughan Fowler, The Hong Kong Daily Press, 31 Aug 1928
[xxvii] Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 27 Aug 1928, CO129/511/13
[xxix] Letter Air Council to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 18 Dec 1928, CO129/511/13
[xxx] Note 29 Oct 1928, CO129/511/13
[xxxi] CoC South China Command to War Office, 22 Nov 1928
[xxxii] War Office to CoC South China Command, 29 Nov 1928
[xxxiii] China’s Air Plans, SCMP 22 Apr 1929
[xxxiv] Hongkong as he World’s Leading Airway Base, SCMP 15 Dec 1934
This article was first posted on 1st March 2023.
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