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A Sprig of the Aristocracy

There's a reason for that airport in Hong Kong having its runway built out into the sea, and it's not just to give tourists a spectacular view.

In the old days, the let-down to Kai Tak (the old Hong Kong Airport) was a notorious plane-killer.  It involved reducing altitude down a steep and mountainous defile with many changes of direction, followed by a final curving approach through the city rooftops and onto the runway; a frightening prospect which took good nerves and excellent flying.

One fine day, Dad found himself scheduled to do a route check from Changi in Singapore to Kai Tak.  The pilot to be examined was a second son of the aristocracy, reputed to be a superb flyer as well as a promising young officer, and was expected to make it all the way to Air Chief Marshal.  His reputation preceded him to the point that Dad was tipped off by the Examining Unit CO; it was clearly expected that the young man would do well.

Now, being examined is always a bit nerve-racking, but a route check was (usually) a doddle compared with a flying rating.  All the pilot had to do was demonstrate that he could take off from Airport A, point the aircraft in the right direction, find Airport B, make the approach, and land; his flying ability was not really being assessed.  All the examiner had to do was sit quietly in the right-hand seat and observe; so Dad duly sat back and prepared himself to be impressed.

The aristocratic young pilot took off uneventfully, flew from Changi to Hong Kong without mishap, and began his approach.  He entered the long, frightening defile, made the first course change (to port) successfully –  and then sat and stared with a frozen, vacant expression at the next, rapidly approaching, piece of mountainside, while his hands clutched the controls with a white-knuckled grip.  

Dad watched for a bit, waiting for the next course change (which should have been to starboard), but nothing happened.  As the examiner, Dad wasn't supposed to assist, just observe, but eventually he decided that the pilot was really leaving it a bit late, so he quietly said, “Starboard rudder, please.”

Nothing happened, and the pilot's vacant expression remained unchanged.  The mountainside, meanwhile, was getting extremely close.

Dad gave it a couple of seconds, and then said, much more firmly, “Starboard rudder.”

Still nothing, and the mountainside loomed, almost unavoidably close.

“Hard starboard rudder, NOW!” Dad snapped.

And the pilot continued to stare vacantly as the mountain rushed towards them.

So Dad unclipped his harness, stood up (as far as he could in a Hastings cockpit), leaned across the throttles and punched the young aristocrat as hard as he could in the jaw, succeeding both in knocking him out and, more importantly, in knocking him off the controls.

Then he fell back into his seat, jammed the right rudder to the floor, throttled forward, stood the Hastings on her wingtip and cleared the mountainside with perhaps a hundred feet to spare.  

Dad completed the approach and landing.  On returning to T.C.E.U., he wrote up his report, which described the events and stated that in his opinion the pilot was unfit for duty on psychiatric grounds and should be boarded out of the RAF.

And nothing further was done. One must, after all, make allowances for the aristocracy.



For some idea of what it was like for airliners, here is a video showing both cockpit and ground footage.  In Dad's day, there was no IGS beacon, the new 13/31 runway didn't exist, and a Hastings would have had to start its approach from a much lower altitude than a modern airliner.  So add on whatever additional scare factor you think is appropriate....


Many thanks to the folk at gwulo.com for information and insight into what the airfield would have been like in the mid-1950's, when this incident took place (Dad was an examiner from 1953 to 1955), and exactly where this might have happened.