From Small Island to Busy Airport
By Awake! correspondent in Hong Kong
“WE MUST be knocking television antennas off the roofs!” exclaimed the startled passenger when she looked out the window of her plane as it came in for a landing at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International Airport. On the ground, a woman hanging washing on the roof of her building in nearby Kowloon City cringed, enduring another assault on her eardrums as the plane roared over her head.
“The problem is the mountains,” says John, a pilot who had maneuvered that treacherous landing many times. “If we land from the northwest, it means a nasty turn just short of the runway. The mountains also contribute to dangerous downdrafts, which we call wind shear.”
For the nervous passengers, the pilots, and especially the people of Kowloon City, the day when Kai Tak received its last flight couldn’t come soon enough. And that day came, for in July 1998, Hong Kong started to use a new airport.
An Airport on an Island
In the 1980’s, Kai Tak airport was reaching its capacity. As there was no possibility of further expansion, a site for a new airport was sought. But Hong Kong had no available flat land large enough for an airport. Besides, people did not want a noisy airport in their backyard. The solution? Chek Lap Kok, a small island lying off the remote side of Lantau, a large, yet mostly undeveloped, island. It was a civil engineer’s dream come true.
To build the airport required leveling the small island and a smaller neighboring island and reclaiming some three and a half square miles of land from the sea. To link the airport to the city of Hong Kong, a 21-mile [34 km] railway and an expressway were built, both leaping over islands and channels, coursing through the city of Kowloon, and crossing Victoria Harbor. This, in turn, meant constructing bridges, tunnels, and viaducts. It all added up to one of the biggest building projects ever undertaken.
Unique Bridges for Island-Hopping
Thousands of people go to Hong Kong’s New Territories to view what has become a world-famous landmark, the Lantau Link, which joins Lantau Island with the mainland. It is made up of a cable-stayed bridge linking Lantau Island with the small Ma Wan Island, a viaduct over Ma Wan, and a suspension bridge with a main span of 4,520 feet [1,377 m], linking Ma Wan Island with a third island, Tsing Yi. These double-deck bridges are among the longest of their kind in the world, carrying road traffic on the top deck and a railway and two traffic lanes on the enclosed lower deck.
The cables holding up the suspension bridge look rather spindly at a distance. One wonders if the engineers got their equations right or if the bridge will end up in the water. A closer look, however, shows that the cables are certainly not flimsy. The 3.5-foot-thick [1.1 m] cables contain 100,000 miles [160,000 km] of wire, enough to encircle the earth four times. The cables need to be that thick because they have to hold up the 95 prefabricated 500-ton deck sections that make up the bridge. When the cables were completed, the prefabricated sections were carried by barge to the site and winched up from the water.
Nearby residents were fascinated to watch the towers supporting the suspension cables go up. The towers climbed into the sky with none of the scaffolding normally associated with building projects. The builders used a process called slipforming. With this method the forms, or shutters, into which the concrete is poured are moved steadily upward without any need to dismantle and reerect them at every stage. Using this innovation, builders erected one 600-foot [190 m] bridge tower in just three months.
Hong Kong is in the typhoon belt. How will strong winds affect the crossing? In 1940 the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Washington, U.S.A., was destroyed when a 42-mile-an-hour [68-kilometer-an-hour] wind twisted it as if it were made of bamboo. Bridge design has come a long way since then. These new bridges have been modeled and tested to withstand gusts of 200 miles an hour [300 km/hr].
From Airport to City in 23 Minutes!
It is quicker to get to Hong Kong Island itself from the new airport than from the previous airport at Kai Tak, even though it is more than four times as far. Why? Trains run an 85-mile-an-hour [135 km/hr] service through to the business center of Hong Kong, aptly known as Central. First, there is a fine view of Lantau’s barren mountains. Then, after the train has island-hopped to the mainland, it sweeps past the world’s largest container port in Kwai Chung. Three miles farther, it comes to Mong Kok, the home of 170,000 people. Then, on to the tourist center, Tsim Sha Tsui, and to a tunnel under the harbor, bringing the train to the terminus in Central just 23 minutes after leaving the airport!
An Airport for the Future
In December 1992, Chek Lap Kok was a one-square-mile [302 hectare] rocky island. By June 1995, it was a 4.8-square-mile [1,248 hectare] platform for the new airport, and Hong Kong’s land area was almost 1 percent larger. While the original island was being leveled with 44,000 tons of high explosives, a large dredging fleet deposited at the site sand brought up from the seabed. During the peak construction period, five acres [more than two hectare] a day were being reclaimed. On the average, ten tons of landfill material were moved every second for the entire 31 months. As soon as the land-formation contractors started to leave, others got to work on constructing the airport itself.
Steve, who worked closely with the project, provides some highlights: “Present-day jumbo jets can damage a badly made runway. Hence, massive rollers were used to compact the sand before laying the asphalt surface. It is estimated that by the time these rollers had completed the first runway and hardstand areas, they had covered a distance of 119,000 miles [192,000 km], equivalent to five times the distance around the world.
“Our company had a contract for the terminal; we built and erected the steel roof-trusses. These weigh up to 150 tons each. We used a giant crane to hoist them onto multiwheel trailers that carried them at 1.25 miles an hour [2 km/hr] to the terminal.”
This terminal is not a concrete box. Rather, the emphasis was on creating a light and airy environment that would be pleasant for airport workers and passengers alike. Besides that, the airport was designed to whisk passengers on their way with minimum delay. Passengers can be seated on the plane 30 minutes after arriving at a check-in counter. To streamline movement, a driverless train is available to transport passengers from one end of the terminal to the other end. In addition, 1.75 miles [2.8 km] of moving walkways make life a lot easier for tired limbs.
Steve continues: “What a change from Kai Tak, which saw over 27 million passengers pass through it in 1995! The new airport can handle 35 million passengers and three million tons of cargo a year. Eventually it will be able to take care of 87 million passengers and nine million tons of cargo!”
Hong Kong is investing heavily in this project—some $20 billion, or about $3,300 for every one of Hong Kong’s 6.3 million inhabitants. It is hoped that Chek Lap Kok airport will help Hong Kong maintain its present prosperity. While that remains to be seen, one thing can be guaranteed: Landing in Hong Kong will continue to be a memorable experience.
[Map on page 12]
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Airport Railway Expressway
Airport at Chek Lap Kok
North Lantau Expressway
Kap Shui Mun Bridge
Tsing Ma Bridge
West Kowloon Expressway
Airport at Kai Tak
Hong Kong Island
[Picture on page 13]
Building the Tsing Ma Bridge
[Picture Credit Line on page 11]
New Airport Projects Co-ordination Office