Kai Tak Part 5 – Post War Airport
Tymon Mellor: On the 29th August, 1945 a small armada of British naval vessels under Rear Admiral Harcourt arrived off Hong Kong, ready to re-establish British administration in the territory. The following day as HMS Swiftsure entered the harbour, three Japanese suicide boats left Lamma Island to attack. Anticipating the move, aircraft from HMS Indomitable were on hand to sink the boats along with the remaining suicide boats at anchor. On landing, Harcourt took over as the Military Governor and the accompanying British troops were tasked with restoring law and order. In the security vacuum following the Japanese surrender on the 15th August, looting and murders particularly among Japanese collaborators, was common[i].
The Japanese had tried to establish Kai Tak as their aviation hub for the new Japanese empire, but now it was to become the key airport for the new commercial airlines and the growing importance of Asia.
Kai Tak aerodrome had been greatly expanded by the Japanese during 1942-45, providing twin concrete runways, but following the re-occupation, the British found the airfield to have been abandoned and in a poor state with wrecked Japanese “Oscar” and “Zero” fighters, float planes and transport aircraft littering an airfield covered in grass and weeds[ii]. In addition to debris on the airfield, the nullahs around and across the airfield had not been maintained and were choked with grass, forming an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. An anti-mosquito campaign was initiated immediately.
Abandoned Zero Fighter (1945)
With the Military Governor in charge, on Saturday 1st September, the Navy raised the White Ensign at Kai Tak watched over by representitives from the Number 3 Royal Marine Commandos and the RAF along with a detachment of Japanese prisoners of war who were now tasked with cleaning up the place. Four days later on the 4th September, the Navy ensign was lowered as airfield and military buildings were formally handed back to the RAF.
It was a memorable night for the RAF as they also came under attack from a Japanese anti-aircraft battery hidden in the surrounding hills. After an exchange of artillary, the battery was located the following morning and the Japanese troops were pursuaded to surrender with the commanding officer handing over his ceremonial sword.
Kai Tak April (1949)
Later in the month, the Navy established their own ‘shore’ base on the west side of the airfield for their Fleet Air Arm station, HMS Nabcatcher. This provided maintenance facilities for carrier based aircraft and to store Corsair piracy suppression torpedo bomber aircraft. The taxiways for the aircraft through the muddy surfaces comprised of PSP-Pierce steel planking.
The main task for the RAF was to get the airfield operational. This required the establishment of air traffic control and communications, followed by removal of the wreckage and debris from the runways and clearance of the overgrown vegetation. The initial tasks were completed within two days and the airfield was ready for aircraaft. The first Douglas C47 Dakotas (transport aircraft) arrived on the 7th September to commence repatriating British prisoners of war[iii].
The RAF initially had control of over 500 Japanese prisoners of war to clear the site and to prepare new temporary accommodation hut ‘Nissen’ facilities and ‘Dorland’ hangars, but with repatriation of the Japanese military in mid-December, the available resources quickly declined.
On the 15th September, HMS Smiter arrived in the harbour carrying RAF Number 132 (Bombay) Squadron with their Supermarine Spitfire XIVs. They took up residence and after a few weeks of training, they started to carry out anti-piracy work.
Meanwhile, the RAF was establishing military, civilian mail and authorised passenger routes to India, China, Singapore, Tokyo, Australia and Shanghai using Sunderland flying-boats for the sea routes and Dakotas for the overland routes[iv].
As before the war, the east side of the airfield was allocated to the military and the west to civilian operations. However, following Japanese re-development, all the civilian buildings on the west side had been demolished. Thus, tents needed to be erected for civilian operation of the airport including administration, customs, immigration and communications facilities. The RAF assisted with equipment and some accommodation, allowing the first post war civilian flight of a China National Aviation Corporation service between Chungking, Kweilin and Hong Kong to commence by the end of September 1945.
Many of the pre-war civil aviation staff were interned during the war and returned to Kai Tak following their recuperation leave to resume management of the airport. Max Oxford who had been the Second Assistant Aerodrome Superintendent was appointed the Acting Director of Air Services. Then in early 1946, A J R Moss returned to take up the post of Director of Air Services with Max being his deputy. Mr O F Hamilton was appointed as the Assistant Airport Manager following a refresher in the UK on the changes in aviation during the war years[v]. These three men would be responsible for the re-organisation, development and management of the new Kai Tak Airport.
During the course of the war, flying development progressed from wooden framed planes into the modern aluminium bodied aircraft that we know today. The early simple flying controls had developed into the beginning of the modern avionics and communication systems. The later planes were larger and heavier, requiring longer and stronger runways as well as suitable runway approaches. In this rapidly developing environment, the RAF had identified that Kai Tak was not suitable for four engine bombers and the Ministry of Civil Aviation in conjunction with British Overseas Airways declared it would not be suitable or safe for the new emerging international air liners. Post war (1945-1949) British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) was using Short Bros. Sandringham flying boats landing in Kowloon Bay on its services between the UK, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan.
Before the war, possible airfield sites had been identified at Shek Kong and Ping Shan, with the former planned to be occupied by the army, while the RAF took the lead in developing the latter. By November 1945, a detailed survey was completed at Ping Shan and work commenced on opening up a quarry to supply the 15 million m3 of aggregate required for the runway and for establishing construction roads[vi]. The new airfield would require around 200 acres of farmland to provide a runway of around 1,800m long and 45m wide. Despite protests from the villagers, works continued into April 1946 when a delegation from the UK’s state airline, the BOAC inspected the site and declared it unsuitable for the needs of their future aircraft. The southern approach was narrow and the northern approach was too close to the frontier with the Mainland in which there was ongoing political challenges, while the site was too far away from the city and no acceptable transportation infrastructure.
In 1947, the Ministry of Civil Aviation undertook a technical survey of a site at Deep Bay. The site was close to the Ping Shan airfield proposal, but it did address the previous operational constraints. Development of the site would have required excavation of a small range of hills and reclamation of the shallow waters of Deep Bay. Upon further review, the site was considered impractical as it was expensive to develop and was remote from the centre of population.
A number of other sites were reviewed, including one at Stonecutters Island where the approaches were good and the island was close to the population centres. However, it was rejected primarily due to the cost of the relocation of the existing military facilities. It was concluded that Kai Tak was after all the preferred site for the new airport[vii].
Alternative Airport Sites
Prior to the Pacific War, civil aviation was under the control of the Harbour Department, but on the 1st May 1946 a new department was formed, the Civil Aviation Department (CAD) under the Director of Air Services. It was also the same date that CAD took over management of Kai Tak from the military. The RAF had been providing air traffic control services and with the transfer to civilian management, the military withdrew their personnel. Unfortunately, this move left the airport without sufficient civilian trained personnel, forcing the reduction in operating hours until new staff could be recruited and trained.
The military had undertaken the minimum of work necessary to maintain airport operations but by 1948, extensive work had been identified for both the pavements, drainage, and, following a typhoon in July, the replacement of the temporary buildings. With the prospect of the construction of a replacement airport in the New Territories, there was little enthusiasm to invest in Kai Tak, but with the growth in passenger traffic and delays to a new airport, new buildings were to be erected to improve the performance of the airport. These included:
- an air traffic control tower and facilities;
- meteorological, signals and communication facilities;
- offices and workshops;
- an aircraft hangar; and
- a terminal building to accommodate immigration, customs, and medical facilities, along with airline offices. The new building was opened on the 10th June 1947 replacing the tents that had previously been used. The building of 580m2 was located adjacent to the civilian jetty, was convenient for the flying boat services, and included a buffet, waiting room and toilets[viii].
The new terminal building was immediately overwhelmed with the rapid growth in passenger numbers, at times being “grossly-overcrowded”. Only after two years of operation, CAD described the conditions in the terminal building “more praise than blame has been received from the operators and travelling public but this no doubt due to some extent to the less fortunate conditions prevailing in other parts of the Far East”[ix]. The building was extended in 1951 and decorative flag poles were erected. It was then extended on a regular basis to cope with the increasing passenger numbers. In 1955 two shops were added with a display of “multi-coloured merchandize”.
Kai Tak Terminal Building (1953)
In 1956, a dedicated VIP building was erected for the “increasing flow of distinguished visitors”, providing additional comfort and security with a decorative carpet provided by H Kadoorie OBE. The first guest to use the facility was the Emperor of Ethiopia, His Majesty Haile Selassie on the 18th November 1956[x].
To improve the safety of approaching aircraft, direction finding equipment was installed on Victoria Peak along with runway lighting for emergency night landings. Airport charges, which had not changed since 1937, were increased, improving annual revenue to $557,230 with around 75% of the passengers transiting to the Chinese mainland[xi].
Kai Tak Layout (circa 1954)
By 1949, Kai Tak was the busiest airport in Asia, rivalling longer established airports in Europe and America. Patronage grew from 25,000 passengers a year in 1946 to 320,000 passengers three years later with 16 airlines operating the 25,000 arrivals and departures and with up to 250 movements a day. The flying boat services to the UK and Japan ceased operation in September 1949, and were replaced with land-based aircraft reducing the London journey time to three days[xii]. A similar growth rate was experienced in mail and cargo handling.
However, this growth was not to last. With the capture of Canton and Kunming by the communist forces in October 1949, flights between Hong Kong and China were suspended and passenger numbers dropped to around 75,000 per year, before rising again with the subsequent increased demand for air transport.
Kai Tak Annual Patronage
Interestingly, prior to 1949 there was a similar number of passengers arriving and departing. However, in 1950 and 1951 there were over 30% more people departing the territory than arriving. After 1951 this reduced to between 10% and 5% by 1960.
Kai Tak Freight and Mail Handling
A similar pattern can be seen in the freight and air mail services with a temporary major reduction in demand due to conflict in China.
The condition of the two runways deteriorated, there were signs of settlement, the concrete surface was breaking and there was erosion of the ground adjacent to the nullahs. An aircraft weight restriction of 70,000 Ibs was introduced and fortunately this restriction did not result in significant loss of traffic. However, in 1949 it was agreed that the runways would be repaired and resurfaced to support heavier aircraft, and a contract was awarded to Gammon (Malaya) Ltd in late 1949 for the works. Starting on the 1st January 1950, progress was slow, but by the end of May 1950 the main runway was complete allowing the aircraft weight limit to be raised to 100,000 lbs. However, no sooner was the runway finished than it was discovered that the RAF fighter jets were damaging the asphalt as they warmed up their engines. A temporary runup area had to be created[xiii]. Resurfacing of the second runway was completed in September 1950 along with emergency runway lights.
Planning work commenced to extend the 1,442m long runway to the north-east. The extension required the resumption of land north of the Clear Water Bay Road of 150m wide by 161m deep, impacting many privately held lots of land and squatters. In March 1951, the Kai Tak Extension Compensation Board sat to determine the amount of compensation to be paid to each owner to allow access to the land for the construction of the runway.
Runway Extension Land Acquisition (1951)
By October, 1951 work on the extension was complete, extending the runway to 1,650m along with the installation of gates on the Clear Water Bay Road to halt traffic when aircraft needed to use the extension.
Kai Tak Extension (circa 1951)
The Far East Flying Training School resumed operation in November 1946 with a single plane, an ex-Royal Navy Stinson L5 with two more aircraft in the process of being overhauled. Nine flying and 16 engineering students were enrolled under the flying instructor A S Halls[xiv]. The school had constructed a new building at a cost of $30,000 for occupation in early 1947, allowing the school to operate four aircraft by the end of the year.
Far East Flying Training School (1954)
In early 1948, work commenced on the erection of an aircraft maintenance hangar for the Pacific Air Maintenance and Supply Co Ltd, PAMCO, a subsidiary of Swire and assembled by Taikoo Dockyard personnel. This hangar later became part of the Shaw Bros Film Studios on Clearwater Bay Road. Jardine Air Maintenance Company, JAMCO, a Jardine Matheson company operated a separate hangar. Using skilled engineers from Taikoo Dockyard and other local engineering firms, along with aircraft engineers trained by the Far East Aviation Training School at Kai Tak and trained Chinese aircraft engineers relocating from China after 1949, the companies gained a reputation for quality and service, making Hong Kong an important centre for aircraft maintenance and repair.
With the cessation of Mainland air services at the end of 1949, traffic movements reduced along with the need for their aircraft maintenance. With reduced demand the two servicing organisations merged in 1950 to form The Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company Ltd (HAECO) which continued operations at Kai Tak Airport until its closure in 1998.
Pacific Air Maintenance and Supply Co Ltd (1949)
As air services recommenced after the war, the number of people flying and the number of planes rapidly increased. It was not long before the territory experienced several flying incidents. The first fare paying passenger fatality occurred on the 25th September 1946, when an RAF Dakota crashed into the lower slopes of Beacon Hill shortly after take-off and all 19 people on board were killed, including 7 civilian passengers[xv]. Things would only get worse.
On the 25th January 1947 a Philippine registered Dakota aircraft carrying gold bullion crashed into Mount Parker on Hong Kong Island while approaching Kai Tak under instrument conditions. The crew of four were killed and it was stated that all the gold recovered.
Just before Christmas in 1948, 21st December, a DC-4 aircraft operated by the China National Aviation Co., crashed into high ground on Basalt Island while attempting to fly to Kai Tak at low altitude to avoid bad weather, and all 35 crew and passengers died. The first passenger fatalities on a civilian aircraft. The adverse publicity over the crash resulted in a temporary loss of patronage.
Two months later on the 24th Feb 1949 a Cathay Pacific Dakota approaching to land at Kai Tak in poor weather, clipped a retaining wall associated with Braemar Reservoir, before crashing into the hillside above the reservoir. All 28 people on board were killed.
A few years later, on the 11th March 1953, a DC-4 operated by Pacific Overseas Airlines (Siam) crashed into the hills of Hong Kong Island shortly after taking off from Kai Tak in low clouds and poor visibility. The aircraft was destroyed and 26 persons were killed.
In early 1951, the Public Works Department of the Hong Kong Government submitted a proposal for the staged development of Kai Tak allowing it to support the new passenger jet aircraft, in particular the de Havilland Comet jetliners. The initial BOAC Comet 1 Far Eastern services got no closer to Hong Kong than Manila. The proposal comprised:
- Stage 1 (shown in blue below), construction of a new runway on bearing 145° (the existing Japanese constructed runways were on a bearings of 125° and 068°) 2,740m long and extending 1,500m into the sea. Reclamation would be undertaken for the new runway and an area to the west for a terminal building;
- Stage 2 (shown in red below), reclaiming the land to the east of the Stage 1 runway would allow the existing runway to be extended from 1,420 to 2,740m long; and
- Stage 3 (shown in yellow below), reclaiming land to the south of the existing sea front to allow construction of a new runway on bearing 94° / 274°.
PWD Proposed Airport Layout (1951)
In the summer of 1951, the Ministry of Civil Aviation appointed R Broadbent to undertake a review of the Public Works Department’s (PWD) proposal for Kai Tak[xvi]. Broadbent was an experienced pilot working for the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, and his interest was very much on the runway layout, approaches and instrumentation. He reviewed the PWD proposal and concluded that the new runway to be constructed in Stage 1 would not provide sufficient capacity due to the prevailing wind conditions. He also concluded that the Stage 2 runway was not practical due to the surrounding hills and that the Stage 3 runway also had limited capacity due to the prevailing wind conditions.
Broadbent however, did develop an alternative two stage solution, taking account of the topography and prevailing wind conditions. He proposed a western approach using radio frequency beacons established at Cheung Chau and Stonecutter Island. This could then be supplemented with an extension of the existing 07/25 runway to 2,740m by relocation of the RAF facilities. If instrumented landing trials proved to be a success, then construction of a new runway 145/325, similar to the PWD proposal could be implemented. This would provide a two-runway airport, admittedly with “dead-ends” but with landing usability at around 99% suitable for all modern aircraft.
Broadbent Kai Tak Proposal (1951)
The Broadbent proposal was welcomed by the Hong Kong Government as it demonstrated that Kai Tak could be expanded to meet the requirements of modern aviation. To progress the scheme a consultant was required to undertaken the necessary planning and engineering. The director of the PWD, Theodore Bowing had previously worked on the New Mudi dam in Nyaseland, Malawi, an earth dam on a semi-permeable foundation. Guthlac Wilson, a soil mechanics expert and partner in Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick (SWK), along with Henry Grace, a former officer in the Airfield Construction Branch of the RAF, flew to Hong Kong in 1952 to discuss the Broadbent proposal. This was nothing new for Grace as he was one of the officers responsible for the restoration of Kai Tak after the Japanese surrender and also for the development of the Ping Shan site.
SWK was appointed in July 1952 to develop the new airport layout, and by November an office had been established in a Nissen hut at Kai Tak[xvii].
The initial review identified a number of issues:
- the cost of land reclamation in Kowloon Bay was less than the value of the existing airport land if it could be released for development;
- site investigation of the existing runways indicated that the ground had never been compacted and extensive improvement would be required to bring it up to a standard suitable for the heavier aircraft; and
- the two-dead end runway arrangements stopping at the foot of a hill side were not satisfactory. This could be overcome by adopting a single runway on a shallower bearing of 13/31.
With this new configuration, the whole runway would be on new reclamation and large parts of the old airfield could be released for development.
SWK Single Runway Proposal (1952)
In January 1953, the Director of Civil Aviation flew to London to discuss the single runway proposal. There was concern over the reliance on a single runway, along with the curved approach and with doubts that the 07/25 runway could be abandoned. The Deputy Operations Manager of the British Overseas Airways Corporation visited Hong Kong the following month to review the site, and on his return to the UK, trials were undertaken using different aircraft including the Comet to confirm that the approach was suitable. These were successful and the need to maintain the second runway was dropped.
It was now time to build a new Kai Tak.
The Planning and Design of the new Hong Kong Airport, H Grace and J K M Henry, ICE, 1957
Hong Kong Records Services
[i] History of RAF Kai Tak, 1927-1971, G L D Alderson
[ii] Kai Tak Aerodroome, SCMP, 11 Sep 1945
[iii] History of RAF Kai Tak, 1927-1971, G L D Alderson
[iv] RAF’s Hong Kong Plans A Modern Base in the New Territories, SCMP 15 Oct 1945
[v] CAD Annual Report, 1953
[vii] The Planning and Design of the new Hong Kong Airport, H Grace and J K M Henry, ICE, 1957
[viii] CAD Quarterly Report, 5 Jul 1947
[ix] CAD Annual Report 1949
[x] CAD Annual Report 1957
[xi] Hong Kong Annual Report 1948
[xii] Hong Kong Annual Report 1949
[xiii] CAD Report, May 1950
[xiv] CAD Quarterly Report, 4 Jan 1946
[xv] CAD Quarterly Report, 7 Oct 1946
[xvi] Ministry of Civil Aviation Survey Report, Aerodrome Development At HK (Kai Tak) Airport, R Broadbent, 14 Jun 1951
[xvii] The History of Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick, Compiled by Geoff French
This article was first posted on 16th June 2023.
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