What the Hill?

If you are reading this, you are probably wondering – what has “Checkerboard Hill” got to do with Hong Kong?

Sporting ground at Kowloon Tsai Park

Located on the edge of Kowloon City, the hill was located beneath the final approach to runway 13 at the non-closed Kai Tak Airport, and had a large checkerboard red and white pattern painted onto the hillside as a navigational aid. To steal from Wikipedia, after reaching the hill aircraft landing at Hong Kong would execute the following manoeuvre:

Upon reaching a small hill marked with a checkerboard in red and white, used as a visual reference point on the final approach (in addition to the middle marker on the Instrument Guidance System), the pilot needed to make a 47° visual right turn to line up with the runway and complete the final leg. The aircraft would be just two nautical miles (3.7 km) from touchdown, at a height of less than 1,000 feet (300 m) when the turn was made. Typically the plane would enter the final right turn at a height of about 650 feet (200 m) and exit it at a height of 140 feet (43 m) to line up with the runway. This manoeuvre has become widely known in the piloting community as the “Hong Kong Turn” or “Checkerboard Turn”.

This photo by Daryl Chapman shows how tight the final approach was, taken from the west side of the airport with the checkerboard in the background.

VH-OJB 747-438 Qantas
Photo by Daryl Chapman

My first visit to Hong Kong was in February 1998, during the final months of Kai Tak being on operation. I was lucky enough to staying with family members who lived right beneath the flight path in Kowloon City, but unfortunately the shorter version of myself didn’t think to waste film on the planes flying above me. As a result, this is the only photo I have in my collection.

Final approach to Kai Tak, viewed from the lower slopes of 'checkerboard hill'

Hindsight is a beautiful thing…

23 Responses to What the Hill?

  1. Pingback: Blogs can have spinoffs too! | Waking up in Geelong

  2. Pingback: Welcome (part 2) | Checkerboard Hill

  3. overgroun says:

    Pretty cool info. I just finished a hike on checker board hill and whats left of old Kai Tak, Great photos!

    • Do you know the size of the Checkerboard ?

      • The southern face of the painted ‘checkerboard’ is 6 squares high by 11 squares across – if each square is two metres across, that makes it 22 metres long by 12 metres high, or about as tall as a three story building.

        Comparing the height of the hill to the pink building in front of it (Holy Family Canossian College) suggests the hill itself is around 12 storeys high, or 35 metres tall.

        Finally, I played around with the elevation data from this website:

        The foot of the hill is about 30 meters above sea level, while the top of the checkerboard is 75 metres – so again about 35 metres.

  4. Jim says:

    Sitting on top of Chequerboard Hill right now. A lovely, but rather warm, December day.

    I used to land 747s and Airbuses at Kai Tak. The new airport is not nearly so fun.

    • Jay Doggz says:

      I feel so lucky to have had a chance to interact with the old Kai Tak airport, even though I was limited to 3 landing and take-offs (as a passenger) in 1997 and 1998. The new place is just boring like all major airports these days.

  5. Liza Punzalan says:

    Jim,i went to old airport yesterday that transformed now as Kai Tak Cruise Terminal and i was at the top of it where they put a park looking for a CHECKERBOARD,i didn’t find it.I saw some hills sorrounds but Chekerboard was none….im sad i didnt find it.

  6. Nigel England says:

    I first flew into Kai Tak (as a passenger) in 1970. My question, when was the chequerboard introduced ?

    • Elisbeth says:

      Hi Nigel, Like yourself I have been there in the 1970’s. Sorry I don’t know the answer to your question. I will keep searching

    • Kurt Zinser says:

      In January 1971 I was on a U.S. military flight to Hong Kong. Aft in the cabin there was a window and hanging next to it was a set of headphones. Someone in the crew mentioned to me as I looked out the small round window that using those headphones I could listen to the pilot. As I listened I heard mention of a checkerboard pattern on the hill side as a landmark to aid landing. I had to go to my seat so I never saw the checkerboard but I never forgot it. Today is 5/16/20 and this channel is the only place I have ever heard reference to the pattern.

  7. David says:

    I’ve been more or less obsessed with Kai Tak lately. Maybe it’s a combination between midlife crisis nostalgia and corona home office…. Landed at Kai Tak in April 1997 and the again after Chinese takeover later the same year. If there where a time machine, visiting Hong Kong and Kai Tak in 1997 is on the top of my list. After viewing Google Street view I can see that a lot has changed in HK. Almost all the cool neon light hanging above the Kowloon streets is gone. Anyhow HK will be my first trip after corona is over!

    Thanks for sharing your stories and picture(s)!

  8. Suleman Siddiqui says:

    The Government has repainted the Hill

  9. David says:

    I used to live on the other side of the road to the “chequer-board”…and, at least with the Cathay pilots 😉 we could often see the passengers looking out of their windows at us!
    The TV signal used to stutter too, due to the great lump of metal in the sky lol

  10. Yuchen Liang says:

    I want to see the checkerboard over the summer break next year when I visit Hong Kong.

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