On a drizzly afternoon thick with the smell of jet fuel, a Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 thunders low over apartment blocks and aims its big, blunt nose directly at a seven-story parking ramp. At the last minute, it banks sharply above a highway overpass, levels off and touches down.
Landing at Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport, squeezed between hill and harbor in one of the most crowded places on earth, leaves first-time passengers terrorized or elated - and often both.It happens every day, every few minutes, from 6:30 a.m. to midnight. Millions of passengers a year experience what's affectionately known as "Kai Tak Heart Attack."
On July 6 - 73 years after the first plane took off from Hong Kong - it's scheduled to come to an end. Authorities will open a new and considerably more prosaic airport at Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong's rural west.
Everybody agrees that Kai Tak is small, too close to the city and - handling 29 million passengers a year - too crowded. Still, flight buffs, romantics and pilots alike will mourn the passing.
"There's no other city where you come so close to it, landing in the heart of the city," said British antique dealer Alex Lamont. "This is the best thing about Hong Kong for me. It's exciting from the moment you arrive."
Those on the ground have learned to pause in their conversations as another jet roars overhead, shaking buildings and cast-ing a giant shadow over the streets. The airport closes nightly to cut the noise.
Businesses have learned to profit from Kai Tak's approach. The Top Banana in Kowloon City offers a roof-top barbecue and glass walls for better viewing of planes banking several hundred yards away on final approach. Waiter Leon Wong says window tables always go first.
"Plane spotters," undaunted by the noise and potential danger, bring cameras, pencils and notebooks to the top of parking ramp to record arrivals.
A big turn on final approach, the mountains of Kowloon, and its downtown location make Kai Tak tricky enough that pilots have to land manually instead of relying on automatic flight controls.
Seconds before landing on a runway that juts into Hong Kong's harbor, the plane must bank 47 degrees to the right. The pilot is guided by a red-and-white checkerboard painted on a hill, his or her vision and - for part of the approach - a radio beam.
Three serious accidents - one on takeoff and two on landing - have occurred in the past 10 years, killing 13 people. Neither landing accident occurred on the approach over the city. Most aircraft take that route, but depending on the wind, they also can land from the opposite direction, over Hong Kong harbor.
Civil Aviation Department spokesman Vincent Kan said the unusual approach may make pilots even more careful and actually contribute to a relatively good record.
"When you approach Hong Kong, you have to be vigilant," he said.
Jeff Turner, a pilot who has flown for Hong Kong's airline, Cathay Pacific, for 21 years, said Kai Tak was "challenging, not dangerous."
"You need more thinking time, more action time," he said.
Chek Lap Kok airport will be bigger and fancier but won't stir the blood like Kai Tak.
Built on a platform of reclaimed land off the northwest shore of hilly Lantau island, Chek Lap Kok will have a weather system capable of detecting wind shear. Air traffic control computers will be able to handle about 1,200 planes at once, four times more than Kai Tak, and the four runways are double the number at Kai Tak.
Operating 24 hours a day, Chek Lap Kok is expected to handle 35 million passengers a year, and the number could rise to 87 million.
But for some aviation buffs, it just won't be the same.
Kowloon high school student Christopher Chan, who has collected more than 1,000 photographs from years of plane spot-ting, said few people will miss the noise.
On the other hand, he said, the new airport "will not have this fascinating approach."