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  • By Theodore Lewis

Hong Kong heart attack

Hong Kong. That mystical place where east meets west. That unique history-filled beautiful territory owned by the British for 100 years and turned over to the Chinese government in 1997.

Although I've had the opportunity to see many cities around the world, Hong Kong has been my favorite since my first visit in 1989.

If you flew into Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International Airport prior to the new airport opening in 1998, you had the privilege (or had to endure the fright, depending on your perspective) of experiencing one of the world's most gorgeous and also most dangerous — sixth most dangerous in the world, according to The History Channel— approaches to landing.

Major airlines would only allow their most experienced pilots to land at Kai Tak. Nearby mountains and frequent typhoons created wind shear that was responsible for many aircraft incidents and there had been 270 fatalities prior to the airport's closure in 1998.

An airplane's approach and descent to runway 13/31 required great skill and was one of the world's last landing spots that could not be accomplished with instruments.

The location sat in a stadium-like bowl, which was surrounded by large housing units, mountains and water. After descending into Victoria Harbor, the pilot would be required to visually spot Checkerboard Mountain. Checkerboard Mountain had a large red and white checkerboard pattern painted on its side.

After spotting the Checkerboard the aircraft would have to make a sharp 47-degree turn to the right and descend to 600 feet while passing just above the roofs of apartment buildings and parking garages.

The pilot would then need to touch down on the first part of the runway and brake sharply to avoid going into the harbor.

That final descent was called "the Kai Tak heart attack" by some.

In 1993, I and some healthcare professionals experienced this Kai Tak heart attack.

An American Hospital Association group that included fellow colleagues Pat Sutton, Cory Chambers and myself, were invited to tour several Chinese hospitals in September of 1993.

On the last day of the China itinerary, our Chinese Airline flight was scheduled to touch down at about 6 p.m. in Hong Kong.

A typhoon was moving into The South China Sea and as our plane approached Hong Kong, the turbulence had increased significantly.

Having flown a lot, turbulence typically didn't bother me. On this occasion though, I was starting to feel uneasy. The up-and-down bumps had turned into side-to-side sways before we reached Checkerboard Mountain.

I was sitting on the right-side aisle of the 737 near the right wing. As we approached Checkerboard Mountain, then made the right turn and descent before touchdown, I was gripping my armrests in a most unusual aggressive manner. There was no one aboard on this approach who felt comfortable.

As I looked out the window, I could see we had reached the edge of the runway.

All of a sudden, the plane tipped uncontrollably to the right. My heart rose into my throat and everyone screamed. This was it. We were going to crash!

Then the plane dipped uncontrollably to the left and Cory Chambers could see that the plane was very close to the runway.

According to Cory's wife Joyce, she had closed her eyes and was probably cutting off the circulation in Cory's hand.

We all felt we were going to die, and similar to a wicked rollercoaster ride, any one that could muster a sound was screaming without regard to any social politeness.

At this point, an unseen force suddenly picked the plane up quickly.

Joyce, with her eyes still closed, thought “some automatic wind shear equipment took over and caused the plane to take a sharp ascent upward, but pilot or equipment, it happened fast which saved us.”

Whatever the force might be, the next thing we knew we were ascending at full throttle.

Loose items and passengers who were not buckled down went flying. One man cut his head open after hitting a side panel.

Our flight attendants obviously did not receive the level of training United and other legacy carrier personnel received. For the next few minutes, they sat buckled in their jump seats crying uncontrollably along with the passengers they were there to assist.

Ten minutes went by without any official communication. Finally, there was an announcement over the PA: "This is the Captain. The airport in Hong Kong is closed! We are flying to Guangzhou!"

OK, at this point we could be flying to Timbuktu for all we care. What mattered was that we were alive.

After about 20 minutes, the poor flight attendants finally regained their composure and began coming by with trash containers to collect the completely used vomit bags.


The landing in Guangzhou was a breeze (pun intended). Our Chinese visas had expired, which meant we had to stay on the plane until the Hong Kong airport reopened. But that didn't matter. Our survival had made us jubilant.

After another hour, the airport in Hong Kong reopened, and we made the 40-minute flight back to Kai Tak. Upon landing safely, the entire plane erupted in applause that equaled our screams the first time.

At Kai Tak, they didn't have the portable jetways we are used to today. The jet plane would park at a spot, passengers would deplane onto the tarmac, and then buses would transport everyone back to the terminal.

As we waited to board our bus, the driver told me, "We saw your attempted landing earlier. There was wind shear and we didn't think you would make it. You are very fortunate.” Indeed!

As we toured Hong Kong the following day and looked down on Victoria Harbor from The Peak, I thought to myself, ”I will never forget that Hong Kong heart attack.”

Theodore Lewis is former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a health care consulting business based out of Portland, Maine. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at

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