Aviation News

April 5, 2011

St. Maarten’s Tropical Planespotting Paradise

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By: Justin Schlechter
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If you go to any airport these days, the amount of security and the bureaucracy running things is staggeringly irritating to deal with. For passengers, the frustrations are obvious. Long lines at check-in, headaches at the security area, removal of shoes, getting frisked, being blasted by radiation, and a multitude of other annoyances are just a few of the things that contribute to the madness. Even airline pilots-the absolute final link of the safety chain-are tossed through the TSA system like a rotting piece of garbage in a dumpster.

For airline enthusiasts and spotters, the last ten years have also become increasingly frustrating but for reasons that do ultimately make sense. It seems no one can escape the increased security and intrusion on life at the airport!

(Photo by Justin Schlechter)

Airline enthusiasts for years have been hassled by policemen, airport security, park rangers and the like since way before 9/11. I can remember being a teenager in 1996 and being told by an airport police officer to leave my spot alongside the touchdown zone of Runway 13L at JFK because I was a security threat. Fifteen years later, I land on that spot at 160 knots, however, I do believe that it is a good thing that the security guards do keep tabs on potential threats.

The idea that a terrorist could easily gain access to relatively open areas near runways is obviously the concern. It seems that in recent years however, the local authorities have come to “know” who the regular enthusiasts are and are more lenient towards the ways of their hobby. Unfortunately, for this former 15 year old, I did not have the fight in me to insist I wasn’t a threat at the time and I listened to the officer and promptly left before I could get in any trouble! However, I will say that most airline pilots have started out by just being airplane fanatics, and despite the difficulties in being able to get near the action, the love of all things aviation prevails eventually; it did for this one.

So with a breath of fresh, humid, tropical air, I recently embarked on a voyage with my family to the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean for a few days of sun, surf, seafood, and of course a trip to SXM, more commonly known as Princess Juliana International Airport, the premier tropical landing site in the world! Our aviation experience essentially included one afternoon of hanging out at the famed Sunset Beach Bar and Grille, ranked the number one beach bar on the entire island. Compared to the hassles one faces in the US with regards to being an airline enthusiast, this place is literally a breath of fresh air, or more correctly, a blast of hot jet exhaust! Not only are enthusiasts not hassled, but the entire experience is made refreshingly easy for everyone!

(Photo by Justin Schlechter)

The entire area surrounding the threshold of runway 10 at SXM is known as Maho Beach. You would think that a beach next to an airport wouldn’t be the nicest but that is not the case here. The sand is powdery white and the water is a perfectly tropical turquoise. The water can be a bit rough though, so be careful! On one end of the beach is a small hut that serves drinks and snacks, and at the opposite end is the Sunset Beach Bar and Grill. This restaurant literally sits about 500 feet from the threshold of the runway and in true enthusiast fashion, has a loud speaker blasting the local ATC as well as a board listing all of the arrivals for the day.

During the time we were there the airport was busy pretty much all day long with a smattering of business jets and twin engine props from neighboring island airlines coming and going constantly. It wasn’t until about noon that the big boys started coming in. Over an excellent lunch of fried shrimp with an amazing spicy dipping sauce, we were entertained by the arrivals of a Caribbean Airlines B737, a US Airways B757, a Delta B737, an American B737, a few Winair Twin Otters, and the highlight of the day, an Air France A340 nonstop from Paris Charles de Gaulle International Airport. Not only were there at least a hundred people crammed into the outdoor patio space at the restaurant, but there were tons of people on the beach and lining the road at the base of the threshold. It didn’t hurt that it was perfectly clear and 85 degrees out, a perfect combination.

One of the more interesting aspects of the afternoon was watching not just the aircraft coming in, but the large numbers of adventurous individuals who risked significant injury jockeying for position behind the fence when a large jet would take off! The aircraft would typically rev-up (or stabilize) their engines before advancing to takeoff thrust, and with a roar the aircraft would speed ahead as the crazy folks along the fence would retreat to the ocean as fast as they could to escape the sting of flying sand propelled by a few thousand pounds of jet thrust. It was a sight to see 30-40 people bolting from the fence towards the water to escape the fury of the blast! What is amazing is that I know the pilots in the cockpit of those ships were extra cautious as to how much thrust they were using knowing that a huge number of people were standing right behind them. Even the smallest bit of thrust though, leads to an enormous amount of jet wash behind the aircraft.

(Photo by Justin Schlechter)

Just as spectacular as the arrivals over the beach, were the departures as well. Just about one mile off the departure end of the runway are mountains rising to about 1500 hundred feet. At 400 ft AGL, all aircraft enter a tight right turn over Simpson Lagoon and away from the hills and out towards the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea.

The main thing that I took away from our visit was that it is possible for people to be able to enjoy aviation without all the hassle. Not only that but I got the impression it wasn’t just aviation enthusiasts that were enjoying the spectacle, but rather people that came to experience a unique opportunity to see something very rare that they ordinarily would not be able to. An experience at St. Maarten is bound to convert some non-aviation people into full blown aficionados. Even my sister-in-law got in on the action and she has zero interest in aviation, but to see a jumbo jet skimming just a few feet over the heads of people on a beautiful Caribbean beach is hard to beat.

My advice to those who may be interested in this type of experience is to do it! It is an incredibly easy destination to get to, especially from New York as American Airlines and Jetblue both have daily service to the island. It is a quick three and a half hour flight, and trust me, when you are sitting along the beach at Maho, it doesn’t matter if you are an enthusiast or not. All it takes is one Air France A340 to blast over your head while sitting on the nicest beach in the area and you won’t believe it took you so long to get down there! Welcome to aviation paradise!

NYCAviation Columnist Justin Schlechter is a First Officer for a major international airline. You can read more of his writing on his Positive Rate blog.

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of NYCAviation.


  • http://profiles.google.com/jlj4774 JL Johnson

    Great write-up. II can’t wait to make it out to SXM someday in the hopefully somewhat near future.

  • Anonymous

    its very nice to visit SXM and see the landing and take off from the Juliana international airport..

  • bit_torrent

    The only airport I have flown into and been met by friends with a Zodiac inflatable to be whisked to a sailboat. I love airplanes but gave them nary a second thought, knowing I would be sailing in a few hours to Anguilla.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JSchmidtty Joseph Nicholas Tar Schmidt

    I can’t wait to fly here one day!

    Seems like such an awesome place.

    Thanks for the awesome article, Justin.