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Friday, July 10, 1998 Published at 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK

Memories of runway one-three

Crowds gather to watch the last planes out

The inauguration of a new Hong Kong airport means that after more than half a century of sterling service the former colony's Kai Tak airfield will close - an occasion, many will say, for much melancholy. Veteran correspondent Simon Winchester has these reflections on the passing of an era.

Simon Winchester laments the passing of runway one three
Your plane has been growling through the night across the Pacific, or over the blistering wilds of Central Asia. Then, so unexpectedly as to awaken you, the note of the engines begins to change and the aircraft, you realise, starts to slide down its glide-path over China towards its landing at Hong Kong.

You wonder what you always wonder about one crucial aspect of your landing. Perhaps the captain will say something on the PA, or if he's too busy perhaps you have to ask the stewardess. You try not to seem too eager as you inquire "which runway?".

If she has done this route many times before, she'll understand exactly why it is you ask and will grin knowingly if she is able to reply, as she usually is: "Today? Runway one-three. You're in luck".

For that means - especially if you are sitting on the right hand side of the plane, which wise people try to do - an unusual measure of excitement awaits.

[ image: A pilots view of the approach]
A pilots view of the approach
There is only one runway at the airport that was built 60 years ago by Mr Kai and Mr Tak and it' s just out into Victoria Harbour at an angle, from top left to bottom right.

If the wind is such that your plane is ordered to land from right to left then than approach is said to be for Runway 31, and is a landing much like any other in the world, unexceptional, hardly worth prising open your sleep-dulled eyelids. But if, as more commonly, the Chinese wind pattern requires a landing from West to East, then the Kai Tak runway is called One-Three, and the procedure for getting down to it is both unforgettable and, for a newcomer, almost terrifying in its aerial intensity.

[ image:  Kai Tak (1962)]
Kai Tak (1962)
Once the controllers have given their permission the plane enters its approach pattern over the south side of Hong Kong Island, heading West. It loses altitude, then turns right 90 degrees about the great island of Lantau, then right again somewhere over the Mai Po marshlands.

It is now heading directly Eastwards again, towards the container terminals and the centre of the great city of Kowloon. Hong Kong island is off to the right, its skyscrapers rearing precariously from its mountain slopes.

We bleed off more speed and fall steadily, rapidly, to earth. There are buildings by the hundreds now, a few hundreds of feet below -- Sham Shui Po, the most densely populated place on earth, Tsim Tsa Shi, the neon capital of Asia. In the cockpit the captain and his co-pilot are concentrating fiercely, for what happens now is like no other approach anywhere; it demands precision, split-second action, unwavering attention.

They lower the undercarriage; and as they do so then spot what they have been looking for -- a low mountain with its granite sides painted with giant red and white square. "Checkerboard ahead -- five hundred yards" sings out the co-pilot -- and as the plane closes with this marker so the captain turns his controls hard to the right and pressed on the right rudder, very hard -- and the plane heels over, a full forty-seven and a half degrees, a turn so steep that people gasp, and wonder -- especially when they see how dramatically the view from the right-side windows changes -- is this for real, is this safe -- could this be the end?

The tip of the right wing zooms so low above the uprushing buildings that it seems to graze the very rooftops. Washing on the lines seems to curl in the turbulence.

If it is an evening landing, hundreds of television screens can be seen, so close that the pictures can be recognised, a snatch of programme even understood.

[ image:  ]
Traffic on Nathan Road seems to close that you can read number plates, glimpse the expressions on the faces of passers-by as -- especially if they are not locals and used to this -- they glance up to see the huge aircraft roaring just a few feet above.

It goes on for fully half a minute and then, with equal suddenness, the turn is over, the rudders go back to neutral, the plane slows and settles above the runway itself, the blocks of flats vanish and all there is sea and the tarmac below, and the captain flares the craft and the wheels kiss solid ground, at last.

One final ritual of a Hong Kong landing remains. As the button is pressed somewhere, that opens the equaliser valves, to make the pressure in the aircraft cabin the same as the pressure in Hong Kong.

A strange and vaguely unpleasant odour wafts into the craft -- the smell, always worse in summer, of the infamously black stream known as the Kai Tak nullah.

Invariably someone will inquire of a stewardess: what's that dreadful smell? And by custom the young woman will reply: "this is Hong Kong -- and that's the smell of money".

Well given Asia's present troubles, there none too much money there any more. So it is perhaps somewhat appropriate that now there will no longer be the smell of that nullah, nor will there be the checkerboard, and no longer that white-knuckled, wing and a prayer kind of landing on Runway 13, for all who make it to savour and remember.

Now, all Hong Kong planes will use the humdrum new airport over at Chek Lap Kok; and in a week or two bulldozers will begin to tear down the aerodrome that was built sixty years ago by Mr Kai and Mr Tak.

Progress, of course, safety, commerce. But the truth is that another of the world's small eccentricities and delights will have vanished, and our lives will have become just a little more bland, a little more ordinary.

Another small pleasure, the landing at Kai Tak airport, will have been consigned to the bin of collective memory.

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