Planes landing at the old Kai Tak airport used to have to swerve between Hong Kong's densely packed residential buildings.
Vincent Yu/Associated Press, 1998 Planes landing at the old Kai Tak airport used to have to swerve between Hong Kong’s densely packed residential buildings.

HONG KONG — Jaw dropping. Stomach churning. Scary. Exciting. Dramatic. For airline passengers and crews who flew into Hong Kong’s old airport, at Kai Tak, the approach and landing was, well, probably all of the above.

Certainly, for many it remains to this day one of the most memorable experiences of their visits to this Asian financial hub.

Aircraft approaching Kai Tak would first aim pretty much straight at a mountainside — a red-and-white checkerboard was painted on the hillside to guide them — and then stage a sharp right turn that would take them toward a runway that jutted dramatically out into the sea.

Anyone seated on the right-hand side of the aircraft got (uncomfortably) close-up views of the crowded streets and rooftops of the Mongkok peninsula below. Anyone below would see the underbellies of the aircraft roaring by above.

The dramatic flights came to an end in July 1998, when Kai Tak was replaced by a much larger airport, at Chek Lap Kok, about 30 kilometers to the west.

An overview of the terminal, which was built on a former runway that juts into Victoria Harbor. The decision to spend $1 billion to convert the old airport site into a cruise terminal is a bet on Asia’s growing appetite for travel.
An overview of the terminal, which was built on a former runway that juts into Victoria Harbor.
The decision to spend $1 billion to convert the old airport site into a cruise terminal is a bet on Asia’s growing appetite for travel.

Starting Wednesday, almost exactly 15 years after the last plane took off from the iconic airport, Kai Tak is once again receiving passengers – though this time, they will approach from the sea rather than from the air, and at an altogether slower pace.

As I wrote in this article, part of the old runway has been refashioned into a cruise ship terminal capable of receiving the biggest cruise liners in the world.