Travel

Plane-spotting in Kai Tak: What it was like to photograph those crazy landings at Hong Kong’s old airport

Apr 11, 2019

Landing airplanes can be tricky. Taking photos of those landings can be even trickier.

Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport was infamous for having one of the world’s most challenging descents. Pilots had to navigate over buildings that stood just outside the runway, which itself was just a tiny sliver jutting into a harbor.

A plane flies over Hong Kong en route to Kai Tak Airport in 1998.
A plane flies over Hong Kong en route to Kai Tak Airport in 1998. / Photo: Courtesy of Birdy Chu

The landing made for dramatic photo ops. For Birdy Chu, a former photojournalist and now a professor at the City University of Hong Kong, plane-spotting became something of a pastime. When he heard Kai Tak would close in 1998, he rushed to photograph the airport and plane landings from as many angles as possible.

Now, his images are on display as part of a retrospective at the old airport site.

A most terrifying landing

When it opened in 1925, Kai Tak Airport, located in the district of Kowloon, was little more than a grassy airfield.

But as Hong Kong’s population grew, the city built up the area around the airport, and pilots had to navigate around increasingly taller buildings in order to successfully land. A History Channel program ranked it the sixth-most dangerous airport in the world.

Anyone who’s landed at Kai Tak has a story about the plane’s hair-raising descents that came close to buildings on the approach to the runway.

Pilots had to turn the plane 45 degrees over the densely populated city in order to land the plane at Kai Tak.
Pilots had to turn the plane 45 degrees over the densely populated city in order to land the plane at Kai Tak. / Photo: Courtesy of Birdy Chu

“I loved that iconic landing,” says Chu. “There are so many unforgettable memories surrounding Kai Tak. It has almost legend-like status, like a myth.”

The airport eventually began taking more flights than it could handle. In the beginning of 1998, news spread that the city would shut it down and open a new airport elsewhere. Chu decided to dedicate his time photographing it.

“When I got to the roof of an old building to take some photos, a loud striking noise rushed over me as a plane went by, forcing me to the ground,” he recalls. “This unforgettable experience motivated me to do a more comprehensive project about the planes, the city, and Kai Tak.”

Crowds gather at Kai Tak Airport to watch the last planes fly out of the airport in July 1998.
Crowds gather at Kai Tak Airport to watch the last planes fly out of the airport in July 1998. / Photo: Courtesy of Birdy Chu

Included in the show are images taken on July 6, 1998, when thousands of people gathered on the terminal roof to witness the airport’s final day of operation.

Obsessed with plane-spotting

In the months leading up to Kai Tak’s closure, Chu would trek around the city to find the best vantage points for capturing photographs of airplanes coming and going.

A shot taken from the top of Kowloon Tong in 1998.
A shot taken from the top of Kowloon Tong in 1998. / Photo: Courtesy of Birdy Chu

His efforts paid off. One shot, taken from the top of a hill near Kowloon Tong, just east of the airport, shows just how close a plane can get to the buildings around it.

“In that photo, I’m actually higher than the plane,” he says.

Documenting the closing of Kai Tak during its last months took over Chu’s life.

“They were happy days, the golden years of Hong Kong.”

Birdy Chu

“I was devoted to this Kai Tak experience,” he says, “finding different spots, angles, and the right timing to capture a plane landing. Through busy streets, up mountains, day and night, on old buildings’ roofs, filming planes from different directions.”

One day, he was climbing down from Victoria Peak, a hill in the western part of Hong Kong, when he ran into actor Chow Yun-fat, whose film appearances include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

Birdy Chu (left) with actor Chow Yun-fat.
Birdy Chu (left) with actor Chow Yun-fat. / Photo: Courtesy of Birdy Chu

It turned out he, too, was taking pictures of planes landing at Kai Tak.

“What a surprise,” Chu says. “I was so lucky.”

A bygone era

Although Kai Tak has been closed for more than two decades, the airport—and its dramatic landings—remain an indelible part of the city’s history, an icon of a bygone era.

“Kai Tak is part of the collective memory of Hong Kong people,” Chu says.

A deep affection for both Hong Kong and Kai Tak makes it small wonder that his favorite image is one of Cathay Pacific’s Boeing 747s sandwiched between two buildings.

Birdy Chu’s favorite shot.
Birdy Chu’s favorite shot. / Photo: Courtesy of Birdy Chu

“I love this shot,” he says. “And the traffic jam you see really reflects daily life in Hong Kong in the ’90s. It was always so busy.”

When the airport finally closed in 1998, Chu was the first person to walk on the empty runway.

Crowds gather at Kai Tak Airport to watch the last planes fly out of the airport in July 1998.
Crowds gather at Kai Tak Airport to watch the last planes fly out of the airport in July 1998. / Photo: Courtesy of Birdy Chu

“I was standing right in the middle of it,” he says. “It was such a weird feeling to be in the center of Kowloon and not see anybody.”

“They were happy days,” Chu says wistfully, “the golden years of Hong Kong.”

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport Nostalgia Photography Instagram