On the roof of the airport parking lot I joined a hundred or so spectators and watched in awe as huge, wide-bodied jets made seemingly impossible turns on the famous, curved approach to Runway 13. Aircraft banked an improbable 90º, almost skimming the tops off the neighboring apartment blocks. The scene was straight out of sci-fi: huge, metallic birds coming home to nest with a demented roar.
Some plane spotters—Chinese and European—welcomed me into the throng, warmly applauding textbook landings from Cathay Pacific and British Airways captains, but being less than complimentary about other regional and European airline pilots who fell foul of crosswinds or came in too fast. The only things missing were scorecards held ice-skating style.
Then the Italians arrived. An Alitalia jet made a terrible landing: port wheel first, followed by starboard, then both together. More smoke was produced from those tires on the tarmac than in the whole of Haight-Ashbury in 1967. Further entertainment was still to come, courtesy of a rattled Biman pilot. He made the turn early and as a result ended up out of position on the runway. I could hardly bear to watch.
While it's easy to dismiss these plane spotters as sad anoraks, they were local heroes to me—animated, cheerful souls absolutely passionate about their beloved airport. Their enthusiasm was infectious. Perhaps it was just as well I was flying back to London that night, otherwise I could have stayed there all week. Why on earth did men hang out in Wan Chai when there was such a spectacle? What pole dancer on earth could provide entertainment on par with this?
Subsequent visits to Hong Kong were strangely disappointing. I was unable to focus on writing other stories because I wanted to return to Kai Tak even though it had long closed. It was like trying to start a new relationship when you're still in love with someone from the past. Nothing in Hong Kong could match the excitement of watching the planes land that June day.
I'm not alone in my affection. Kai Tak closed five years ago this month, but many still refer to it like a much-loved, weirdo uncle who's no longer around—one who will be forever remembered because he broke all the rules and made you gasp while doing so. Indeed, the airport's closure was another nail in the coffin for the era of romantic travel—Kai Tak was the last embodiment of an age when commercial flying was a buzz. Even an airline amenity kit became a novelty when you flew into Hong Kong: the supplied blindfold was not for sleeping but for landing. And you only used the earplugs once you landed: these were not for ears but nostrils because the first smell of Hong Kong was of its Kowloon Bay sewage outflow. The first time comedian Bob Hope landed at Kai Tak he asked about the terrible smell. A friend informed him it was sewage. "Yes I know, but what have they done to it?" was his reply.
Kai Tak was a place of wonder and, like so many works of genius, deeply flawed. The meeting area was shabby and tiny; there were few shops and restaurants air-side. In the event of delays the terminal was soon crammed with a queue for taxis as long as Hong Kong's famous Lantau Trail. Even Kai Tak's greatest fans acknowledge that it had long since reached its capacity, but it didn't make saying goodbye any easier. And no one loved the airport in the guts of the city more than the spotters. To them Kai Tak was the best airport ever.
"It was more an airfield, really," recalls Hong Kong resident Andrew Robertson. "You were so close to the aircraft that you really could smell them."
There were several good vantage points for watching the final approach and turn onto Runway 13. Ironically the Spectators Terrace above the main terminal building was not one—its glass was thick and usually too dirty to see through. According to Armstrong, "a thrilling experience was standing in the street under the approach in and around Kowloon Tong. There was a shopping center there and the planes turned directly over you. It felt like you could touch them."
Robertson remembers jogging around Kowloon Tsai Park directly beneath the final approach. "I used to love shouting as loud as I could when a 747 passed overhead, knowing no one could hear me."
With Kai Tak gone, many Hong Kong residents are understandably proud of its replacement, Chek Lap Kok (its drab proper name is the Hong Kong International Airport). It is undoubtedly a well-designed, efficient, world-class facility. Inside it is everything Kai Tak wasn't—spacious, airy and, with an inventive use of natural light, a little too bright for some when the morning sun catches those check-in desks. But it's also like so many international airports nowadays: somewhat soulless and homogenized. You could be in Schipol or Singapore. One reason Kai Tak is still held in such great affection is precisely because today's airports are characterless monoliths—vast, out-of-town hyper-malls with a few planes around.
"Kai Tak was a busy airport right in the middle of town and loved by all," says Armstrong. "Chek Lap Kok is like any other airport—straight in approach, and boring. It simply doesn't generate the same fun, excitement or mystery that the old airport did. Long live Kai Tak!"
"[Chek Lap Kok is] too far away and is just a standard international airport," says Nevin Lim, a freelance tour guide in Hong Kong who gave up his hobby of plane spotting when Kai Tak closed. "It takes the fun out of flying. Kai Tak was so exciting because the planes flew so close to the city. There was always a possibility that there might be a problem of some sort. Of course, no one wanted anything to go wrong, but it was this element of danger that made Kai Tak so exhilarating."
Today, Chek Lap Kok offers practically nothing to the plane spotter. With no spectator facilities (none were even planned), spotters are totally sidelined. The hardy are left to find good viewing sites at the airport for themselves.
"If the wind changes you need to trek round to the other side of the airport, and when there is only a gentle breeze they may change runways two or three times a day," complains Robertson, who now only occasionally ventures out to the new airport—35 kilometers from Hong Kong island—for a day's spotting. "There is also no shade, no supply of cold drinks and no toilets [near the viewing points]. This is not recommended for 12 hours at 30ºC or more at 90% humidity."
Most of Chek Lap Kok's vantage points are at ground level, and it is difficult to get a close view of the aircraft because of the high-security double fencing that surrounds the airport. There is also heat haze to contend with.
Meanwhile, back at Kai Tak, David England still works in an office in Kowloon Bay that overlooks the old airport's runway. From his window he can see a fleet of double-deckers in a Kowloon Motor Bus livery, on the site where Concordes used to park. "That," he sighs, "is not really the same, is it?"
As though anything ever could be.