Just prior to the dawn of the Twenty-First Century...
The ninety-nine-year British lease on the city of Hong Kong nears expiration. At the same time, the Hong Kong Airport, squeezed between giant skyscrapers and rocky mountains around the city's center, is rapidly running out of capacity.
Can the new airport be completed before the lease runs out? Engineers initially say no — the job would take twenty to thirty years. Why so long? Because the site selected for the new airport is a body of water sixteen miles from the current site, between two rocky islands in Hong Kong Bay.
At $20B US, the Hong Kong Airport Core Program is to include a new international airport, a high-speed rail system, two massive tunnels, a new sixteen-mile, six-lane highway, and the largest terminal in the world — on land that doesn't exist.
Worse still, the bridges needed to connect the new airport across two islands to the mainland will have to withstand Category 10 typhoon winds of over two hundred miles per hour. The typhoons occur on average eight times every summer.
The towers for the proposed suspension bridge, which will have some of the longest spans in the world, will rise to the height of sixty-story buildings. The massive cables to hold up the deck are too heavy to be lifted to the towers’ peak given current technology, and the bridge must be constructed in a manner that doesn't slow down cargo shipments in the world's busiest deep-water port.
The proposed highway system will have to ride over rocky mountains so steep and fragile, no existing equipment can climb them. The parallel rail system must travel through tunnels five miles long, parts of which are located beneath Victoria Harbor.
All of this is to be created three to four times faster than any normal construction project.
And yet, engineers make it happen.
Hong Kong is an uber-capitalist city of nearly seven million people zipping night and day over a land mass of just over four hundred square miles. It is one of the world's largest financial centers and manufacturing sites, and moves the highest amount of air-cargo shipping on the planet.
By the 1980s, with the British lease expiration looming, the airport is already seriously over capacity. In 1990, British and Chinese political leaders, while wrangling over the details of the handover due in 1997, hire Bechtel, Costain, and dozens more firms to undertake what will be the largest — by an order of magnitude — construction project ever.
Design begins in 1992, construction to be completed by 1997 — an impossible date to meet, and everyone knows it. What will happen when the Communist Chinese government assumes responsibility for the city's administration?
At its peak, the project will have over twenty thousand workers under one thousand contracts. Just in order to coordinate their activities — much less design the infrastructure — entirely new advanced computer software systems are invented.
One of the first major projects is the creation of an entirely new land mass to hold the new airport. Forty feet of mud, over thousands of acres, is dredged by giant 'vacuum cleaners' to reach bedrock to support the fifty-three million tons of rock that will be poured over it.
And where to get all that rock?
From the two existing islands composed of low mountains — that are dynamited, hauled, barged, and dumped in the channel to create one continuous land mass. The two islands, once craggy peaked, are now flattened like enormous salt flats. And the airport home rises between them like a huge tan aircraft carrier floating up from the ocean floor.
In parallel, the road system is under construction. But there's a problem: The rocky mountains around Hong Kong are such that it's impossible to lay a highway system through them in seven years. So the engineers enlarge Hong Kong by creating a roadbed around the perimeter of the island large enough for the six-lane highway and rail system.
What about the bridge with cables too heavy to lift? To solve the problem, the bridge engineers develop a system to build the cables in the air by using a system of automated pulleys to string individual strands back and forth between the two sixty-story towers.
Near the final stages of construction, the terminal, which looks from the air like a giant 747 jet, is hit with typhoon winds exceeding two hundred miles per hour; everyone wonders whether the structure will survive. When the storm subsides, after bursting dozens of glass windows, the terminal is discovered to have only minor damage.
But the July 1997 handover date is looming large, and there is still an enormous amount of work yet to be completed. Will the Communist government continue the project, or pull the plug? Frantic negotiations between British and Chinese officials result in a one-year extension to the project. Handover occurs. Construction continues day and night.
On opening day, there is still one large task to carry out: The existing airport is to be de-commissioned, and computers, equipment, and personnel moved to the new airport. The runway lights are turned off.
Cathay Pacific Flight 813 takes off from Honolulu, scheduled to arrive at the new airport hours later.
Dozens of trucks make a total of eight hundred trips between the old and new airports. Service is suspended for only seven hours. Entirely new, highly advanced flight control systems operate perfectly at the new airport.
Flight 813 touches down on schedule.
Hong Kong Airport now handles more passengers per day than the population of Boulder, Colorado (pop. 100,000) on five hundred flights per day — twice the number of the replaced airport. Those passengers arrive and leave within the world's largest enclosed structure, which is comprised of more than five million square feet.
Even more importantly, total construction was completed at $1 billion under budget — thanks to the minds of men who said it could be done. Then did it.
Jeffrey Perren is a professional writer with a background in Physics and Philosophy. His latest novel, The Endangered Specie (in progress), is the story of a bridge engineer whose work is opposed by a group of radical environmentalists.