|By Eric Coeckelberghs|
September 7, 2003
Eric Coeckelberghs is an avid aviation enthusiast who, in 1991, had the chance to fly - jumpseat - into world-renowned Kai Tak airport. Between his own photographs of the landing and his entire trip, and his telling of the adventure, we get a feel for what it was like heading towards the most famous checkerboard in the world...
1991 was still a good year for commercial and freight aviation. In the heart of Europe, at Brussels Airport, there was not only the superhub of DHL, but also the European headquarters of the major American courier Federal Express.Click for large version
Every year, the same rumor aired: that FedEx would close down operations in Europe because of the huge losses generated on the continent. It was odd to see that connections and flights between such key cities as London, Madrid, and Rome were flown with a Fokker 27, where packages were simply stored in the belly while two hundred meters down the same ramp, DHL was using their containerized Convairs. The volume of freight handled by Federal Express was less than one third that of their neighbor, DHL.
In 1991, I had completed my first three months with FedEx after coming out of the military draft. I wanted to become active in aviation, and Federal Express had been my primary choice due to their career possibilities. After three months, employees could qualify for a program called “the jump seat” (nicknamed the “bumpseat”). The idea was exciting: if you scored a 100% on the safety test of the airplanes, you could book yourself a jumpseat to any destination in the Federal Express network, worldwide, free! In many aircraft, one of the jumpseats was immediately behind the captain’s seat, on the flight deck. Unfortunately, you could be bumped off the flight of a FedEx employee had to travel for business. This became problematic if you got bumped off in San Francisco or Tokyo and had to find your way back home with your own resources.
The safety test was an easy step for me, being an aviation enthusiast all my life. I scored 100% and the FedEx network was mine for the discovering. I had a few friends at Brussels airport who had just come back from Hong Kong, and they couldn’t stop telling everyone what an exciting city it was – great food and cheap clothing. Of course, Hong Kong had something else: Kai Tak International Airport, the world’s most famous (and infamous), adventurous, and exciting airport. Of course, I chose to go to Hong Kong.
When I was confirmed for the trip, I realized that I had more than one dream waiting for me – from Anchorage onwards, I would be able to fly in the legendary old Flying Tigers jumbo, so I would have a window seat while landing in Kai Tak. Of course, I secretly dreamed of sitting in the cockpit during that magic moment, but I also knew the flight crews normally didn’t allow the jumpseat passengers on the flight deck while attempting that landing.
As always, I would be traveling on a very limited budget, so I only had five rolls of Fuji slide film with me to cover the entire trip. My equipment was certainly with my aviation friends a bit “famous” for being so basic: the camera was a Praktica MTL5B model of around $100, all manual. I had only two lenses, the Sigma 70-210 of around $150 and a second-hand 24mm which cost about $40. Over the years, I had won many prizes in international aviation photography contests and some of my pictures were published. One was even used on an air show poster, so the equipment worked pretty well after all.
It was on a Friday night in September, 1991, that my journey began. At 4 a.m., my work was done, giving me exactly ten minutes to grab my bag and board the beautiful, old red and purple DC-10 freighter. Actually, it was only about eight minutes since I hung around taking a few pictures on the ground. It was a full house that night, with three jumpseaters aboard.
Photo © Eric Coeckelberghs
The trip started in a superb way, as I was allowed into the cockpit during takeoff. The DC-10 has a very wide view and giant windows, so a night takeoff over Brussels was the first highlight.
It took nine hours for the old lady to reach our first destination, Anchorage. FedEx crews are quite friendly, as I was again invited into the cockpit to witness the landing. Unfortunately, it was still too dark to take a picture, and there was also some fog around. The weather was, I guess, typically Alaskan for that time of year – some low clouds and light rain. It was a nice environment, though – the Alaskan photographers can’t complain with the amazing surroundings.
After a few hors of waiting in the FedEx transfer room, it was time for the second leg – Anchorage to Tokyo. There were three other jumpseaters traveling on the same plane, all on their way to Hong Kong for a week of eating (good food, I guess).
Then we went out onto the ramp and I managed to get excited all over again – there it was: a bare metal jumbo with a rather small sticker indicating the jet’s operation for Federal Express, near the cockpit. Even though the letters had been removed, one could clearly see the giant title it once wore: “Flying Tigers”. Definitely a legend, and what a comfort for us – the DC-10 had three jumpseats, the 747 had eighteen! They were on the upper deck and as large as any business-class seat. My luck ended here, however, as there was no time for taking a picture on the ramp and we weren’t allowed in the cockpit during takeoff.
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The classic 747's flight deck. (All photos © Eric Coeckelberghs)
The engines roared hard as we broke through the Alaskan clouds on our way to Narita. The flight crew was, again, very friendly. It would become another pleasant flight – I told the crew I was on my way to Hong Kong not for the food, but for the aviation scene (they then allowed me to come into the cockpit). And what a classic, old flight deck it was!
The forecast for landing in Narita was pretty nasty – subtropical rainstorms… I asked the captain if it was difficult to fly then, to which he replied, “Well… it scares the sh_t outta you!” (Nevertheless, he let me remain in the cockpit for the landing.)
It was indeed, at least for me, a weird landing. You could see the flight crew really working with that jumbo, as the outside view was… well… nothing. The view was of a blank white space… and then, in an instant, around an altitude of just 150 feet, only moments before touchdown, rice fields and huts appeared. Seconds later, we were safely on the ground in Japan. The captain left the cockpit lights on so I could take my best flight deck picture thus far. I had to use a half-second exposure – handheld – but hey, this jet was going to fly me into Kai Tak!
The jumpseaters had to stay inside the aircraft as it was only a short stop. That was hardly a problem for me. I roamed the cargo deck and took some interior photos.
A new flight crew came aboard – yet again, quite friendly. The copilot was a woman, and it was her very first landing at Kai Tak. The captain seemed quite experienced, though he would say to me somewhere during the flight, “My eyes are not too well anymore…”
It was another five hours to Hong Kong, and while the crew was preparing for the trip, I told the captain I was not only an aviation enthusiast, but also an avid photographer. I’ll never forget his reply, “Well, why don’t you stay in here with me during the landing?” I had to check my hearing. Disbelieving, I checked my camera – I had only 8 slides left… I’d better plan it well. Saving photography for later, I dozed off for a few hours once we were on our way from Narita.
My internal clock never fails – I woke up an hour and a half before the magic landing. I had another great talk with the crew about the difficulties surrounding the world’s most exciting landing.
The preparation for the landing began earlier than on ordinary approaches – I took one picture of the captain as if he was looking out at the horizon. As that horizon grew closer, one could see just how huge Hong Kong really is – and how many hills surrounded it! When we approached the city, I also realized that our altitude was dropping rapidly.
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The view on approach.
The world-famous checkerboard hill appeared in the distance, and the rush began… the jumbo continued descending. I quickly took two pictures out the left cockpit window for an idea of just how low we were. The photos were 24mm, so things were closer than they appeared.
The next photo I took was the cockpit view just before the 47° banking maneuver. I could see the runway, and it was close! The overwhelming part of the landing was that the runway was no where near in line as we descended. The engines howled as we made the famous turn, and I took my most precious picture. I looked to the right – apartment blocks were close enough to see people in their homes – a rather dramatic visualization at 170 miles per hour. The adrenaline rush was a hundred times better than anything I’ve had before.
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The view from the flight deck of the famous approach.
Looking forward, I realized the runway was still not in line. It was immediately before us. The captain – with the “not too well” eyesight – took a firm grip and dropped the right wing hard. Still airborne, we sailed over the runway. Then it was the left wing’s turn to drop out from under us. A moment later, we were level again, and it felt like we must’ve been already halfway down the runway. We came down hard, and they put on full brakes – really, really full. The end of the runway probably wasn’t actually under the nose of the aircraft, but from where I sat – it couldn’t be seen. Welcome to Kai Tak.
As we taxied to the apron, I took a shot through the left window showing the hill and checkerboard and control tower. I was also amazed at how busy Kai Tak was. I took two last pictures on the ground, showing the old 747 which was still quite alive.
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(All photos © Eric Coeckelberghs)
Hong Kong was no less exciting – magnificent temples, great food, cheap clothing. The last day, I spent a few hours on the famous carpark to watch aviation in all its flavors. Of course, I didn’t know then that the airport would be closed not many years later, and I planned on coming back. So, I took only about fifteen pictures. It’s simply unbelievable what kind of approaches what sees in Kai Tak - while the Cathay Pacific jets had almost perfect landings every time, some of the other carriers discovered the “inner” and “outer” limits of the approach.
Four days later, I was again in an upper-deck ex-Flying Tigers jumbo-jet jumpseat. We waited at the holding point for ten minutes for a thunderstorm (an Asian-type thunderstorm, at that). As we thundered down the runway and back toward home, I enjoyed for the last time the feast of lighting, hills, and a world city.
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...searching for the runway...
…I woke up having flown thousands of miles back to Anchorage. The weather was still bad. From Anchorage back to New York, I again got the flight deck jumpseat on a DC-10, but, having had my dose of excitement, I offered the seat to a fellow jumpseater. The captain on that flight was former of TWA, and he joked that the cockpit was the best videogame yet. True, in 1991. And still true today! The ramp at JFK spoiled me – I took some pictures of FedEx’s finest. The bare metal fuselage of the Flying Tigers aircraft is so eye-catching – I can’t imagine anyone holding up his sunglasses when seeing that amazing reflection.
From JFK we flew to Glasgow-Prestwick. The weather there was remarkably similar to Anchorage’s, but that didn’t stop me from lying down on the tarmac for one last photo of the red-and-purple DC-10.
A short hop later and I was in London. From there, I was on my own. I paid nearly $180 for a one-way tip aboard Sabena back to Brussels. With the backpack full of memories I had, I didn’t mind the price.
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Kai Tak apron view - notice the checkerboard!
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I would like to dedicate this article to the wonderful Federal Express crews and personnel – it was truly the best company I have ever worked with.
Unfortunately, during restructuring in 1992, the Brussels hub essentially disappeared. Nowadays, European operations have recovered and MD-11s and Airbuses fly out of Paris. Of course, every time I see a FedEx photo on this site, it brings back memories of my best aviation experience yet.
Eric Coeckelberghs has worked for various aviation companies for decades. In his spare time, he's been an avid enthusiast and photographer. Much of his work his featured here on Airliners.Net.