Kai Tak Aerodrome Part 3 – The Roaring Thirties
With the completion of the Kai Tak reclamation in 1930, it was now time to turn the new platform into an aerodrome. This would require the establishment of a government department to manage the aerodrome, provision of facilities to support commercial operations, and the establishment of a flying school.
Airmail and Commercial Service
As a government funded operation, the new aerodrome needed a new organisation to administer the related operations and licencing. A new post of Director of Air Services was created in February 1929 and the Honourable Commander G F Hole, Royal Navy, was appointed while concurrently maintaining his other duties as Harbour Master, Marine Magistrate, Register of Shipping and emigration offices, all of which he had been undertaking since 1924. Just to keep him busy, he was also appointed to the Legislative Council[i].
The Director of Air Services was responsible for the operation of the aerodrome, the certification of worthiness for aircraft, and the licencing of pilots, in accordance with the Air Navigation (Colonies, Protectorates and Mandated Territories) Order 1927. To provide some technical assistance, in late September 1930 Flight Lieutenant A J R Moss, aged 32 was sent by the British Government to become the aerodrome’s superintendent. His role was to ensure the “aerodrome may be developed on modern lines”[ii]. More fondly known as “Papa” Moss later on, he would subsequently oversee the development of the Kai Tak aerodrome, be interned in Stanley during the war, and finally retiring as the Director of Civil Aviation in 1952. He died in April 1979 in West Sussex[iii].
By 1932, the reclamation platform had been levelled and grass seeding of the aerodrome was complete. Although there were no commercial operations, local civil aircraft made 1,100 flights in 1931 and 1,785 flights the following year along with the unrecorded military flights. In February 1932, aerodrome fees were introduced for parking and landing there, ranging from $75 to $800 per month depending on the type of aircraft.
In the autumn of 1935, Imperial Airways started a series of experimental flights to connect Hong Kong with Penang as a branch line to the main-line England – Australia . The airmail service was inaugurated on the 23 March 1936 when a de Havilland DH86 named by the airline ‘Dorado’, landed, and took off the next day. By the year end, the service had made 84 trips carrying 77 passengers and 9.8 tons of mail and freight. On the 5th November, the China National Aviation Corporation commenced their thrice weekly service to Shanghai and Canton.
In 1937, new services were introduced by Pan American Airways operating weekly to San Francisco via Manila, and by Eurasia Aviation Corporation operating thrice weekly services to Peiping (Beijing). In 1938, Imperial Airways shortened its branch-line by developing a new route to Bangkok, and Air France introduced a service to Paris via Hanoi. Passenger numbers rose from 3,685 in 1937 to 9,969 in 1938, facilitated predominantly by the China mainland based services of the CNAC and the Sino-German Eurasia airlines. Japan’s invasion of China had a detrimental impact on services, and in 1939 the fighting and occupation gradually limited safe passage to destinations in China, with scheduled flights being indiscriminately attacked or shot down with loss of life further discouraging air travel[iv].
Hong Kong Flying Club
The Hong Kong Flying Club had been formed in 1929 with the full support of the Governor, Sir Cecil Clementi, and assisted by an initial financial grant of $60,000 and an annual subsidy of $30,000 from the Legislative Council. By the end of 1931, the club had 52 flying members, a club house, a “Field Cottage”, and two aircraft. The new Governor, Sir William Peel, was equally enthusiastic about aviation and at the opening of the new club in May 1930 noted, “One of the main objects of the club is to train pilots and engineers and to take as members all nationalities. Each member on joining undertakes to place his services at the disposal of the Government in time of stress“[v]. Clearly his mind was on a bigger picture.
The club employed professional instructors and seemed to be prospering, but by the end of 1930, minor accidents and a shortage of spares restricted flying to one sea plane. With the departure of the flying instructor in the summer of 1931 to join the Far East Aviation Company, there was no permanent instructor and the club was running out of funds. Following a mat shed fire, both aircraft were lost and with no funds left, the club suspended operations in 1932.
Far East Flying Training School
With the demise of the Flying Club, the Far East Aviation Company, a commercial operation run by Vaughan Fowler, an active promotor of aviation, offered to take over the club’s activities by forming the Far East Flying Training School. The success of the commercial operation as the Governor notes was the ability to train “aliens especially Chinese with a view to sale of British machines for which the company is agent”[vi]. The Air Ministry in London did not agree to the proposal. They were concerned[vii]:
- given the small size of the aerodrome, the operation of the flying school may disrupt military operations; and
- training Chinese pilots may extend to training on military aircraft and subsequent military aircraft sales. This would be undesirable.
After some heated correspondence over who controlled Kai Tak, and a petition to establish the flying school, the Air Ministry proposed a new arrangement, that the Far East Aviation Company could house their aircraft at Kai Tak but not undertake any training there. The planes would be flown by qualified airman to Kwanti or Happy Valley racecourse where the training could be undertaken[viii]. To overcome the reluctance of London to approve the school, the company offered to look for an alternative location to Kai Tak[ix].
However, it was not practical to find an alternative site, so in May 1933 while on a visit to London, the Director of Air Services had a meeting with the Air Ministry to resolve the matter. He pointed out that the RAF only used 11% of the available flying hours and thus the argument that the flying school would impact RAF operations could not be substantiated. With an offer to limit the flying school activities when the RAF were using the field, and by limiting the number of instructional planes in the air at any time, the committee agreed to withdraw their objection[x].
The flying school was officially founded on the 7th November 1933, but it was not until early 1934 that facilities were available at Kai Tak to commence operations, undertaking 1,720 flights in the 11 months of operation while training 44 Chinese students.
The school continued to receive the Government subsidy and in 1936 was approved by the RAF to train reserve forces along with the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps at special rates. A building was erected on the west side of the aerodrome with offices, a lecture room, a locker room and an engineering workshop.
The 1928 Public Works Department (PWD) layout of the aerodrome provided for a hangar and a slipway on the eastern side of the aerodrome. The latter facility would allow ‘flying boats’ to move on to the land and into the hangar for maintenance, and for protection during inclement weather. Construction of the slipway commenced in July 1928 requiring the dredging of 10,000m3 of material, and the placement of 16,000m3 of rubble to form a ramp 115m long and 12m wide. The ramp was set to a grade of 1 in 20 and was surfaced with 353 concrete blocks, typically 2m long, 1.1m wide and 0.6m deep. The final 40m of the ramp was underwater with a minimum draft of nearly 2m at the end. The ramp was completed by June 1929.
The design for the new hangar developed by the PWD from a “standard” Air Ministry design in early 1929, was 76m long and 37m wide using structural steel to form a shed. The key element of the design was that it needed to withstand the high wind gusts recorded at the site of up to 210kph.
Recognising the poor state of the RAF accommodation and the generous size of the hangar, the Governor offered to share the building with the RAF if they would contribute to half the cost, estimated at £12,000[xi]. The Air Ministry was under pressure from the RAF to improve the facilities, particularly as mat shed fires and storms were wreaking havoc on the equipment and safety. In June 1929 the Air Ministry agreed to fund half the construction and noted that the hangar was to be located on land reserved for the RAF, so they requested that the building be vacated by the civil authorities if the Council built an equivalent facility on the west side of the aerodrome. The Council would prepare the design and specification for the building with the Crown Agents for the Colonies arranging the procurement[xii].
The hangar was located clear of the sea wall to ensure sufficient space for the large ‘flying boats’ to manoeuvre once out of the water. With the design completed in March 1930, the steel work was ordered for delivery in December 1930. A piling contract was awarded to Vibro Piling Co Ltd in December 1930 for the installation of 172 driven piles, and these were completed by the 4th February 1931. The piles were driven to set, with depths varying between 2.7m and 19.5m[xiii].
Construction of the building ground beams and slabs was awarded to Vibro Piling Co Ltd in February 1931 for $8,872 and was completed 10 weeks later in April 1931. In May 1931, the Hong Kong Government invited tenders[xiv] for the erection of a new hangar and associated works.
Erection of the hangar was awarded to Messrs Sang Lee & Co in June 1931 for a sum of $67,990 and was substantially complete by the end of that year. The structure consisted of a steel structure manufactured by Dorman Long at their Middlesbrough yard in the UK. The hangar was designed and fabricated to allow easy shipping and onsite assembly, and the 500 tons of steelwork required nearly 40,000 rivets and more than 27,000 bolts to erect. The main hangar structure provided a clear space of 36.5m wide, 36.5m deep and 12m high. Sixteen pairs of braced struts, each weighing three tons were erected on the foundation to support the nine-ton roof trusses spanning across. Four sliding doors at each end, provided openings 9.1m high allowing clear access in and out of the building. Brickwork side buildings provided offices, stores and workshops to support the hangar operations.
The eastern hangar was a great success and by the summer of 1933, funds were approved to build a second hangar and slipway on the western portion of the aerodrome for civilian use, leaving the eastern facilities exclusively to the RAF.
The new hangar was a similar design to the original but instead of doors at both ends, the two sets were placed at one end and along the side wall respectively. Offices and maintenance facilities were located on the south side of the building with a control tower on the northside. Construction of the slipway commenced in November 1933 and was completed within 12 months. Pontoons and special mooring buoys were later added to support the ‘flying boat’ services.
Piling works for the new hangar started in September 1934 and erection of the hangar steelwork commenced in March 1935. The hangar, workshops and tower were completed in January 1936 for a total cost of $347,000[xv].
By the end of 1934, the aerodrome had been fenced and a new fuel and oil store was constructed next to the western hangar in 1936 comprising of five lock-up garages and offices for the three leading fuel companies.
To service the passengers using the ‘flying boat’ services, a semi-permanent terminal building was erected near the sea wall in 1938. The structure consisted of a wooden building 16m by 10m with a 37m covered walkway connected to the landing pier. The records do not indicate whether or not there were toilets or a bar!
A demonstration of night flying was undertaken in November 1932 by Vaughan Fowler the Managing Director of the Far Eastern Aviation Company. The flight was something of a last-minute decision, only deciding to proceed the day before. Temporary arrangements were made to light the field using five barrels of old felt soaked in petrol to guide the take-off and landing. Taking off at 9pm, the plane disappeared into the darkness before returning and landing. A total of five flights were made, taking a number of passengers into the Hong Kong at night[xvi].
It would be several years before electric lights were introduced at the aerodrome. In December 1936, a large General Electric flood light consisting of three 3,000 watt project bulbs producing 1.2 million candle power, was mounted on the roof of the control tower and could illuminate objects up to one mile away. This however, was not an ideal solution for night time flying as it did not delineate the aerodrome, and so by July 1937, 29 boundary lights were installed around the field providing yellow dots at about 100m intervals and throwing a white light around them. Together with the flood light, the aerodrome was ready for night flying[xvii].
They did not have to wait long though for later in the month, the first commercial airline made an unscheduled night landing. It was an Eurasia plane from Peiping which arrived late at 8:15pm following a three-hour departure delay due to unrest at Peiping. Thankfully the flood light allowed the plane to land without incident[xviii].
The flood light did not last long though, as, during a typhoon in September 1937, the unit was badly damaged but a replacement was arranged and erected at the north boundary of the aerodrome. The original unit was repaired and re-erected in 1939.
Arrival of the Observatory
In 1928, RAF flying officer Vaughan Fowler (see Part 2 for his background) paid a visit to the Observatory to see if they could provide meteorological services to support a proposed civil aviation company. The Director of the Observatory was keen, but funding could not be arranged until 1936, when Mr L Starbuck joined the staff as a Professional Assistant. Thus, “Commencing on 18th May , a Senior Officer and a Chinese Assistant have been stationed at Kai Tak aerodrome daily during the forenoon. A synoptic chart of the Far East, on which is also all available information concerning upper winds, is prepared and exhibited in the aerodrome, and the officer is available for consultation by departing pilots. An hourly weather report is broadcast daily, usually from 0600 to 1600 Hong Kong Standard Time, and is communicated directly to the Imperial Airways plane during its weekly flight from Indo-China to Hong Kong. A route forecast is also furnished to the pilot on his return flight to Indo-China”[xix].
Radio came to Kai Tak in the summer of 1937, using the transmission towers at Hung Hom. Two Marconi transmitters were in place in the control tower, one for long wave the other for short wave with a total output of 250W. The radio was watched daily between 6am and 5pm with other times by request. The airport call sign was “ZCK2”[xx].
RAF Get A Home
With the civil war in China brewing in the 1920s along with growing nationalism, there was pressure to abolish the foreign concessions there, with Britain consequently renouncing the Hankow, Kiukiang and Weihaiwei concessions by 1930[xxi]. The military were sensitive to these external events. To the north, Japan had started its invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
The RAF facility at Kai Tak was located on the west side of the aerodrome and was designed to be of a temporary nature to meet the requirements of the Washington Naval Treaty. On the 1st January, 1930, the RAF Far East Command was formed with its headquarters located in Singapore, and the Kai Tak base became a “Station” within that organisation[xxii]. No longer would the Commanding Officer report directly to the Air Ministry in London, and this change resulted in the Commanding Officer losing his entertainment allowance, “the unkindest cut of all”.
The need for a permanent RAF facility was well understood but a shortage of funds along with Treaty obligations, restricted the options. However, things were changing. In the summer of 1929 the Air Ministry advised, “it may be necessary in the near future to develop the Royal Air Force site to meet the Royal Air force requirements”[xxiii]. Land on the east side of the aerodrome, an area of 28 acres, was therefore reserved for the future permanent facility.
By the summer of 1932, the Air Ministry, concerned about the deteriorating situation in China, was forced to immediately commence the planning, design and construction of permanent facilities for the Fleet Air Arm and RAF[xxiv]. With the Japanese continuing their expansion in Northern China in 1933, it was clear that the Washington Navel Treaty was fraying. Japan formally gave notice to terminate the Treaty at the end of December 1934.
The original layout proposed by A J Dawson in 1928 utilised two pieces of land that were not part of the aerodrome, and so these would need to be acquired. To the east of the aerodrome, a site was identified for the officer’s mess, and to the south, the site of a future gaol was required for communications masts. The 1928, the funding agreement with the Air Ministry was that these sites would not be developed, but now London had to find the money to acquire the land.
Throughout 1933 discussions were ongoing on how the land could be acquired and who would pay. Following the funding problems over the original aerodrome, the Hong Kong Government was wary of agreeing implementing works without agreed funding. By June 1934, the Treasury approved the purchase of the two pieces of land[xxv].
Construction work on the buildings and facilities within the existing aerodrome commenced in 1933 and with funding approved for the additional land, construction commenced on all the other new facilities in the summer of 1934. Occupation of the completed facilities started in the summer of 1934 with the accommodation for the airmen, and was nominally completed on the 1st April 1935 when the base name was revised to RAF Kai Tak.
The original aerodrome development plan prepared by Dawson in 1929 included a northern extension, requiring the acquisition of additional land and the diversion of the Sai Kung Road. At the time, there was no funding for this additional work as it was not required for the operation of the civilian airport. With the development of a permanent RAF base during 1933/1934, discussions on the northern extension resumed. During a conference at Government House in April 1934, attended by senior RAF personnel, the Air Commodore noted that the extension was “essential for Air Force requirements” as it would provide a 300m straight landing site from the sea. It was agreed that the area should be incorporated into the aerodrome. Funding was not discussed but given that it would be used by both civilian and military, the cost would be split between the Hong Kong Government and the Air Ministry[xxvi].
In September 1935, resumption notices were issued to acquire the remaining land. A total of 17 acres of farm land had to be raised to the airfield level requiring 176,000m3 of fill, along with two nullahs extended and the Sai Kung Road diverted. A contract was let to Messrs Kwan On with work commencing in August 1935. The filling works were completed by the end of 1936 but defective nullah work was identified requiring the award of a new contract to undertake major repairs to the nullahs. Reconstruction of the nullahs would continue for several years, with the excavations posing a hazard to uninformed pilots. The diversion of the road was completed by May 1938.
The forecast cost of the works was $300,000, made up of $97,000 for resumption, $138,000 for filling, and $65,000 for the road diversion. The Air Ministry was not happy about contributing to the bill and insisted that the cost be borne solely by the Hong Kong Government. After much cajoling in February 1937, the Ministry reluctantly agreed to fund 50% of the cost[xxvii] up to a maximum of $150,000. In the end, their bill came to $141,500.
With the rapid growth in aviation in the 1930s, the Governor appointed a committee in September 1938 to:
- “Inquire into the adequacy of the Aerodrome and its equipment, having regard to such extension of its use as may reasonably be expected in the near future.”; and
- “Advise upon what steps, if any, should now be taken by Government for its extension or alteration”[xxviii].
The background to the review was the accelerating development of the aviation industry. When Kai Tak was designed, three competing technologies were available, airships, ‘flying boats’, and land-based planes. By the late 1930s, airships were no longer the future of civil passenger carrying flying, and ‘flying boats’ as per Pan American’s “Clippers,” and the UK’s “Empire” flying boats became more practical. The development of the (Short Bros.) ‘Empire’ flying boats only came to fruition late in the 1930s, much too late to provide services to Hong Kong before the second world war. Imperial Airways successor, BOAC, persisted with flying boats until 1948, well after the war was over. They had the advantage of not requiring a fixed landing strip but just calm water. However, by the late 1930s, many big cities had established airports without access to water, thereby reducing their advantage.
The committee comprised of five members, and included the Director of Air Services, Group Captain of the RAF, and the Director of Public Works. They held five meeting and consulted with the aviation industry and presented their report in the summer of 1939[xxix].
- New reclamation is required to construct a three runways system to provide take-off lengths of 1,830m, 1,610m, and 2,100m as shown on the layout plan;
- Limiting building heights around the airfield that may impact flight operations;
- The runways to be constructed of tarmac or reinforced concrete to withstand a 50-ton load;
- Land should be reserved adjacent to the aerodrome for aircraft factories and associated activities;
- An up-to-date terminal with the ability to handle 150-200 passengers;
- Two additional hangars with minimum dimensions of 61m by 91m and 15m high;
- Slipway for marine aircraft suitable for handling up to 150 tons and a low water clearance of 4.6m along with a shelter for launches and small boats;
- Emergency power generation to provide lighting at night in the event failure of the electricity supply; and
- Runway and marine landing lights along with obstruction lights including on Kowloon Peak.
To understand the quantum of the work involved, preliminary investigations commenced in November 1939, undertaking land and marine surveys of the area. In May 1940, the Air Ministry endorsed the three-runways proposal and clarified the funding arrangement declaring “the Council assumes that the Government of Hong Kong will bear the total cost”[xxx].
Unfortunately, the scheme was not implemented due to the deteriorating situation in China and the need to prepare the colony for war.
The Guilford Conjecture
Michael Guilford was a local historian and seasoned Hong Kong engineer, working on many of the major post-war projects for his employer Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners. He wrote several papers on Hong Kong’s infrastructure including “A Look Back: Civil Engineering in Hong Kong 1841-1941”, and this would become the definitive historical guide to infrastructure construction in the territory.
When it came to Kai Tak, he noted; “A short 457m-long tarmac runway, primarily for civilian use on an east-south-east/west-north-west alignment, together with hard standings, jetty, control building, offices and a new piled civil hangar near the south-western extremity of the airport were completed in the later thirties which enabled Kai Tak to become viable”. During the research for this article, I have tried to identify the source of this reference, but have been unable to locate any contemporary document or aerial photos that show a tarmac runway.
There was a report from February 1937, noting that “Work will also shortly commence on installing a macadam runway at the Airport at Kai Tak. This work will require an expenditure of $120,000, of which half is being provided by the Government and half by the Air Ministry”[xxxi]. This was the same month that the Air Ministry agreed to fund 50% of the northern extension, and thus, the report may be a reference to that project.
The Air Services section of the 1940 ‘Hong Kong Blue Book’ provides details on the aerodrome including information on the landing area. It provides dimensions of the airfield, altitude, surface conditions – “decomposed granite fill, partially grass covered, suitable for use at all times for light aircraft. Unsuitable for periods up to 24 hours after heavy rain for aircraft over 10 tons”. Under the heading ‘Description of Runways’, the word “Nil” is stated.
The aerial photo above is from August 1940. The two hangars are clearly visible along with the sea slipway and nullah repair works to the east. To the north is the extension and diversion of the Sai Kung Road and the RAF buildings on the east side. In the centre of the airfield, a white rectangle is visible, and this was part of the surfacing trials undertaken by the RAF in 1935/36 as part of a possible future runway. There is no obvious paved runway. The war time operation of Kai Tak will be explored in Part 4.
[i] Appointments, A Local Director of Air Services, SCMP 11 Mar 1929
[ii] Hongkong as an Air Port, Technical Adviser Now In Colony, SCMP 18 Sep 1930
[iii] Albert James Robert MOSS (aka Papa) [1898-1979], https://gwulo.com/node/42385
[iv] Report of the Harbour Master and Director of Air Services for the Year 1938
[v] On the Wing, Governor Opens HK Flying Club, SCMP 2 Jun 1930
[vi] Telegram Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 8 April 1932, CO129/539/11
[vii] Air Ministry Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/539/11, 6 May 1932
[viii] Air Ministry Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/539/11, 7 Sep 1932
[ix] Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/539/11, 14 Jan 1933
[x] Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/539/14, 4 May 1933
[xi] Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/514/1, 28 Mar 1929
[xii] Air Ministry to Secretary for the Colonies, CO129/514/1 12 Jun 1929
[xiii] Kai Tak Hangar, Lecture to University Engineering Students, Erection Described, SCMP 11 Feb 1933
[xiv] Kai Tak Air Port, Government Want Tenders for New Hangar, SCMP 4 May 1931
[xv] Public Works Report, 1936
[xvi] Night Flying, Demonstration Given at Kai Tak Aerodrome, SCMP 16 Nov 1932
[xvii] Night Flying, Further Facilities for Kai Tak Airport, SCMP 17 Jul 1937
[xviii] Aeroplane Lands at Night, SCMP, 21 Jul 1937
[xix] A Brief General History of the Royal Observatory, L Starbuck, May 1951
[xx] Air Services Report, Hong Kong Blue Book 1938
[xxi] A History of Hong Kong, G B Endacott, 1958
[xxii] History of RAF Kai Tak, G L D Alderson, 1972
[xxiii] Air Ministry to Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/514/1 12 Jun 1929
[xxiv] Air Ministry Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/539/11, 6 May 1932
[xxv] Air Ministry to Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/549/9 2 Jun 1934
[xxvi] Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/551/9 28 Jan 1936
[xxvii] Air Ministry to Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/56/3 25 Feb 1937
[xxviii] Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/587/1, 29 Dec 1939
[xxix] Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/587/1 29 Dec 1939
[xxx] Air Ministry to Secretary of State for the Colonies, CO129/587/1 26 May 1940
[xxxi] Development Work, Colony’s Provision For Roadways, SCMP 4 Feb 1937
This article was first posted on 9th March 2023.
Related Indhhk articles:
- Kai Tak Aerodrome Part 1 – Kai Tack Bund
- Kai Tak Aerodrome – Part 2 Construction
- Flying boats before Kai Tak runway opened – SCMP article
- Japanese Extension of Kai Tak aerodrome, BAAG reports, 1942-1944