- Kai Tak, Hong Kong's former airport, set to reopen as Kai Tak Cruise Terminal
- Closed in 1998, Kai Tak was one of world's most challenging airports for pilots
- A Cathay Pacific pilot recalls unique 45-degree turn when landing at Kai Tak
- Many pilots aborted first landing during bad weather and swung around for another go
(CNN)"Goodbye, Kai Tak, and thank you."
Fifteen years after Richard Siegel, Hong Kong's then-director of civil aviation, bid farewell and turned off the lights at Hong Kong Kai Tak International Airport, the old airport has been given a new life.
With official ceremonies set for this week, it will be rechristened Kai Tak Cruise Terminal. The new facility will accommodate cruise ships and other large vessels.
Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas will be the first ship to arrive at the cruise ship berth -- formerly runway 13 -- today at 8 p.m.
Before its closure in 1998, Kai Tak (the first recorded flight from the site took place in 1925) was regarded as one of the most difficult airports in the world for pilots to fly into and out of.
As it sat in the middle of Kowloon City, with a runway protruding into the sea, landing in Kai Tak was a hair-raising event even for experienced pilots.
Cathay Pacific Airways' general manager of operations and pilot Russell Davie has 36 years of flying experience.
He remembers Kai Tak fondly.
"As a pilot, it was totally unique. It was the only major airport in the world that required a 45-degree turn below 500 feet to line up with the runway, literally flying between the high-rise buildings, passing close to the famous orange and white checkerboard as you made that final turn toward the runway," he said.
Daryl Chapman, a teacher and aviation photographer from Britain who has lived in Hong Kong since 1987, spent countless hours photographing the amazing scenes of large aircraft swooping in over the Hong Kong skyline. (See a gallery of his work above.)
"Kai Tak was very different to most international airports because it was right in the city," recalled Chapman. "Lion Rock (a prominent hill in Hong Kong) blocks the standard straight-in approach; thus planes had to make that special turn over Kowloon City while landing on runway 13."
"This was quite a challenge, especially in strong wind conditions," Davie said. "As Cathay pilots, we had plenty of practice and became very adept at flying the approach.
"The approach was quite a challenge for pilots from other airlines, especially in more demanding flying conditions, as they might only come to Kai Tak once a year."
Scariest moment: 'We never saw the actual plane!'
Chapman recalls watching flights landing at Kai Tak during those "demanding flying conditions."
"Being at the Kai Tak car park watching airplanes land in heavy rain could be very worrying," he said. "The pilots could not see the runway, and landing over Kowloon, you had to be visual with the runway.
"Some (pilots) seemed to wait a little longer than others before they aborted the landing and went around for another go. Some would appear out of the low clouds on the approach path, then power up and vanish back into the clouds."
The scariest memory for Chapman was the landing of an Air France 747-200 freighter contending with an extremely low ceiling.
"We could hear it coming but saw no sign of the landing lights. It was dark," he said. "It got louder and louder; then you could see the glow of the red beacon under the plane. He overshot the turn and went right over the car park and control tower as he powered up and went around for another try."
"That was very loud and worrying, as we never saw the actual plane!"
Fond memories of Kai Tak
Although the much larger and more modern Hong Kong International Airport (which opened in July 1998) is considered one of the best airports in the world, Kai Tak is still missed in some quarters.
It served Hong Kong for 73 years and was something of a city symbol, known to travelers worldwide.
"I have very fond memories of Kai Tak," Davie said. "When I first joined Cathay Pacific, I spent many happy hours walking around Kowloon City every time I had a visitor in town, watching the aircraft fly low over the houses and shops.
"The approach looked really amazing from the ground, and also as a passenger, especially if you were seated on the right-hand side of the aircraft."
Davie's favorite route was arriving from Japan or Taiwan, northeast of Hong Kong.
"This allowed the pilot to fly the aircraft initially along the East Lamma shipping channel before turning around the end of Hong Kong Island, past Green Island, and heading toward the checkerboard to make the final approach," he remembered.
"Passengers lucky enough to have a window seat had a fantastic view of the south side of Hong Kong Island, then Central and the harbor before landing over Kowloon."