Plane-spotting in paradise
Some serious aerial gymnastics are required to reach Saba, St. Barts and St. Maarten, making them a top choice for aviation lovers
When it comes to your next tropical getaway, you might be tempted to keep things simple when it comes to scenery: white, sandy beaches that go on and on, palm trees and maybe a local ruin or two.
But if you’re looking for adventure with your paradise, then three Caribbean islands top the list. Look no further than St. Maarten, St. Barts and Saba, where short runways are the norm, and plane watchers can raise their cameras to the sky to shoot what aviation geeks (#avgeeks) simply call #planeporn.
Capture the belly of a landing jetliner against the Caribbean blue sky, discover the best angle to show planes so close to beachfront sunbathers, they can almost touch them, and find the best spot to capture that 45-degree nose dive of twin propeller planes. You will have as much fun taking your holiday snapshots as you will posting them on social media and bragging about your plane geek adventures.
Saba We have just landed at Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport on Saba Island. Time to get out a pen and cross off “landing on the world’s shortest commercially used runway” from your bucket list.
At just 396 metres, it is half a kilometre shorter than the Billy Bishop airstrip on Toronto Island, and if you measure the “usable” portion between the horizontal white lines, it is less than 300 metres long.
This plane trip might be a white-knuckle experience for some, but for one of my fellow passengers, seasoned pilot Adam Twidell, who served 10 years in Britain’s Royal Air Force and another 10 years as captain for a private jet company, it was plain exhilarating. “I’ve never seen a landing like this,” he said. “Can we go again?”
I am not sure if he is serious or joking, but with a GoPro mounted in the cockpit and a smart phone running, he has videotaped the entire descent and is admiring his own footage.
The challenge of flying into Saba is not only the extremely short landing allowance, but also the approach. Saba is a classically shaped volcanic island — an inverted cone. There is no flat land or valley for a straight and open approach. Flying in from St. Maarten, you approach the island from the left, clipping so close to a rugged cliff that you fear a sudden jolt of wind will send you right into it.
As you try to visually gauge how much leeway there is between the tip of the wing and the boulders, the pilot banks sharply to the left and you feel the wheels touching down before you actually see the runway. It is not until the plane comes to a full stop that you realize you have been holding your breath.
Why would someone build such an impossible airport? To Sabans, nothing is impossible.
In the 1920s, the Dutch government sent its top civil engineers to its municipality of Saba to explore the possibility of building a proper road on the island, but they found it too hilly. The Sabans thought: “The Netherlands is a flat country. Let’s hire a team from Switzerland. Surely they will know how to build a mountain road” — or so they thought. But, even the Swiss said it couldn’t be done.
Local carpenter Josephus Lambert Hassell wouldn’t take no for an answer. He took an engineering correspondence course, and in 1938, with no heavy machinery, began to build the road by hand, with the assistance of his fellow Sabans.
After 20 years of hard work, the road that the Dutch and Swiss said could not be built had become a reality. Just as the islanders thought the back-breaking work was over, a pilot from neighbouring St. Barts suggested they build an airport.
Air transportation is vital in the Caribbean, as the islands are not selfsustaining. Supplies must be brought in, and there are obvious advantages of air carriage over shipping by sea. But make a plan to build an airport? Even the Sabans were skeptical.
The St. Barts’s pilot, Captain Remy F. de Haenen, said he was confident he could land his propeller plane at Flat Point, if only it was cleared of the loose rocks. The diligent islanders went at it once again, clearing that small strip of flat land by the side of the slope by hand.
On Feb. 9, 1959, amid a roar of engine and a cloud of dust, de Haenen successfully landed his plane. The rest is history.
St. Barts While Captain de Haenen was instrumental in the building of the Saban airstrip, his own island’s airport was not inaugurated until 1984.
Like Saba, the Gustaf III airport in St. Barts has a very short runway (650 metres). It is nestled in a valley between two peaks, at the base of a gentle slope. On top of the slope lies a roundabout with whizzing traffic from the island’s main road. At the end of the runway is St. Jean Beach. This combination makes it one of the most difficult landing approaches in the world. Pilots must have special certification to land there, and the type of planes allowed is also severely limited. The 19-seater STOL (short takeoff and landing) Twin Otter is the largest plane that has been approved to land here.
If you’re flying into St. Barts, pick a seat toward the front of the aircraft, where you can feel a quasi-nosedive as the plane makes a quick descent down the slope, after clearing the roundabout.
It is even more fun to watch the planes from the road: the downturn angle is simply unreal. Just steer clear of the airstrip clearance. It may sound like a no-brainer, but instead of tall, metal fences guarding the airfield, the area is lined by knee-high guardrails, much like the ones you see around roadside ditches. Every centimetre counts when the planes need to negotiate such a steep decline.
As a group of us waited and watched for the next oncoming plane, some decided that it might be safer to get off the road by stepping inside the barrier and crouching down. Just when we were settled in our new position, ready to witness the landing, a plane approached, kept a fairly high altitude, then passed by the airstrip and made a wide U-turn.
Minutes later, an airport fire truck sped toward us, a woman in uniform shouting at us that we had just impeded the landing of an aircraft by being inside the restricted area. Oops.
St. Barts is rich from celebrity tourism, and residents don’t pay income tax. Couldn’t the government rebuild the airport and make it bigger, better and more secure?
Our group had the honour of meeting St. Barts’ President Bruno Magras at an informal conference, and when we asked him about that possibility he was adamant.
“There is no plan to expand the airport. We don’t want to open the doors too wide. The challenging airport was just the ticket to keep the island exclusive. We don’t want to be the next St. Maarten.”
St. Maarten If St. Barts is happy to stay small, St. Maarten is proud to be big, relatively speaking. Its Princess Juliana International Airport is the major hub for the region, handling more than 100,000 international and local flights every year, with a sparkling new four-storey terminal building to boot. But fans of the airport do not care so much about what goes on inside the new terminal. They are more preoccupied with what’s outside: when is the next big plane coming in?
The airport is known for planespotting. The runway ends at a public beach, one of the few places in the world where you can watch a plane make its final approach right over your head. And they pass low; official information says 30 metres, but it feels as if you could touch the plane’s belly with a good leap.
The fun does not stop when a plane lands. Once refuelled and reloaded, it is time to take off. Small propeller planes are non-events, but when a big jetliner is ready to depart, it’s time for “jet-blast.”
The hardcore daredevils head for the airport’s metal fence and grab onto the latticework. Despite big warning signs saying “jet blasts can cause severe physical harm or even death,” they try to get to the centre line. They want to “jet surf”: when the hot air from the engines whip at you with enough intensity, you are literally lifted off your feet. It sounds like quite an experience, but there is real danger. The hospitals in St. Maarten regularly receive emergency admissions of people who have been “sand-studded.” A jet blast is not just hot air. It also blows up the sand from the beach, and, when launched at high speed, can become embedded in your skin, or worse, blind you.
But you don’t have to put yourself in harm’s way to appreciate St. Maarten’s airport. Save jet-surfing for extreme sports enthusiast. Watching planes as a spectator sport is just as rewarding. The best place to do so is at the Sunset Bar & Grill, located on the south side of Maho beach; you can’t miss it. The most prized sightings are the “biggies”: KLM’s Boeing 747 on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and Air France’s A-340 on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Even the smaller planes are exciting to watch. The bar has a surfboard that displays the arrival times of the day’s flights, or check online at sxmairport.com.
Small propeller planes are non-events, but when a big jetliner is ready to depart it’s time for “jet-blast”