Letter From Maho Beach

September 21, 2017

IF YOU’VE SPENT any time on the internet, you’ve seen Maho Beach, the thin strip of sand and surf abutting Princess Juliana International Airport on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten.

St. Maarten — or St. Martin — is part French and part Dutch. Princess Juliana (SXM) is in the Dutch section, and Maho sits just off end of runway 10. And when I say “just off,” I mean only a few hundred feet from the landing threshold. As arriving planes cross the beach, they are less than a hundred feet overhead. For an idea of how close this is, you can check out any of a zillion online pics. Like the one above. Or this one, or this one, or any of hundreds of YouTube videos. Unlike so many other scary-seeming airplane pictures you’ll come across, they are not retouched.

Thus, planespotting at Maho beach is an experience unlike any other in commercial aviation. Not that you need to be an airplane buff to enjoy it. For anybody, the sights, sounds, and sensations of a jetliner screaming overhead at 150 miles-per-hour, nearly at arm’s reach, are somewhere between exhilarating and terrifying.

How and why, exactly, are hard to understand. Is it the sense of danger, maybe? Or just the sheer novelty of it? Whatever it is, I felt it this past summer, during my first-ever flight into SXM. I landed a Boeing 757 there, coming in over Maho at about 2 p.m. on a perfect afternoon. It was fun being at the controls, but at heart, I didn’t want to be flying the plane. I wanted to be under it.

Our hotel was just around the corner, and as soon as I could I changed into a swimsuit and a t-shirt, and headed over.

The beach itself isn’t particularly pretty. It’s small, hemmed in between a pair of unattractive restaurants. The water is turbid, and there’s an ugly, two-lane road at the top of the sand. But that’s not the point, I guess. There are better places to swim, but none with a view like this one.

SXM isn’t a busy airport. Only a dozen or so jets land each day, and the nearby hotels and bars post the arrival and departure times. I was staying at the Sonesta, and they had a placard in the lobby listing the day’s flights. People tend to cluster whenever a plane is due — especially when it’s one of the widebodies coming in from Amsterdam or Paris. Air France brings in an A340. KLM was flying the 747 into SXM for years, but recently switched to the Airbus A330. The A330 is significantly smaller, but still breathtaking when it’s close enough to scrape the top of your beach umbrella. Charters from Europe are common too, using A330s, 787s, and other heavies.

I didn’t get to see any of those during the 90 or so minutes I spent there. I saw only smaller jets — a 737 and a couple of A320s. Still it was exciting. At Maho, pretty much any airplane gets your adrenaline going. And the noise will shake your bones. I also got to watch the same 757 that I’d brought in, piloted by the outbound crew, take off to the roar and applause of onlookers.

My landing at SXM wasn’t the smoothest one, if I can be perfectly frank, which I partly blame on the excitement of flying there for the first time. Procedurally, though, it was little different from landing anyplace else. The media will often speak of the Maho Beach experience from the perspective of the airplane — and wrongly so. Planes are described as “swooping in low,” or “low-flying,” or coming in at unusual angles. I found an online article describing SXM as “one of the world’s most dangerous airports.” Another cites the “risky approach” that pilots make to the runway. The Guardian writes that pilots are “forced to approach at low altitude.”

That’s just baloney. The runway at SXM is short, but there’s nothing different or unusual about the approach to it. The altitudes, speeds and angles that we fly all are normal. There happens to be a beach at the foot of the runway, but that’s the beachgoer’s concern, not ours.

And I don’t say that lightly. Jet blast and wingtip vortices at Maho routinely upends people and sends their belongings skittering into the ocean. Or worse. This past July, a 57 year-old woman from New Zealand was killed there after the blast from a departing 737 slammed her into the ground. The takeoff threshold of runway 10 is even closer to the shoreline than the landing threshold, and the tails of departing jets practically throw shadows over the sand. And the fact it was a little-old 737, and not a larger aircraft, attests to both the power of jet engines and the proximity of the beach. Check this out.

The woman was among a group of thrill-seekers who’d tried hanging onto the perimeter fence as the pilots throttled up. Hurricane-force thrust from the engines then slammed her into the pavement. Although she was the first fatality, several others have been injured over the years after recklessly grabbing onto that same fence — some of them sent tumbling head-first into one the concrete barriers that line the roadway — despite the presence of signs warning people to stay clear.




Top-of-page photograph by Fyodor Boris

Note to readers: This story was published shortly before the island of St. Maarten, along with much of the Caribbean, was devastated by Hurricane Irma. Both Maho Beach and the adjacent airport were badly damaged by the storm. Our best wishes go out to the people of St. Maarten.

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30 Responses to “Letter From Maho Beach”
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  1. Joe says:

    I have been at St. Maarten and our family has had a home now for 30 years or more. I knew this airport and beach before the runway expansion. I have also flown airplanes (no jets)and from my perspective it isn’t the approach for a jet that is difficult. It seems to me it is the procedure for a missed approach. There is a pretty big mountain so a hard right turn on accent is what is important.
    As far as the beach I remember it when it was much larger and despite the runway it was a nice place with a good party going most of the time.

  2. JAFD says:

    Greetings from Newark !

    If the wind is from N or E, the parking lot at the Ikea in Elizabeth is right across the Turnpike from the landing zone, and, if weather is inclement, you can go to the restaurant in the Ikea and watch through the windows.

    If wind from S or W, the parking lot of the Ironbound Recreation center, St. Charles & Komorn Sts, SE of Ferry Ave, NW of the US 1-9 viaduct – https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7261981,-74.1449717,16z – is in a safe neighborhood and has good view of planes on final approach.

    If you need to hit the restroom, a pleasant request at the desk of the Recreation Ctr – entrance around the corner on Rome St – should work, and the shop at Teixeira’s Bakery – Kossuth & Magazine Sts, three blocks away – will drive away hunger till dinnertime.

  3. Pedro says:

    Sorry for the woman that was killed. It seems to me that videos on the web about that plane spoting place makes people overconfident.

  4. Frank L says:

    Another sad story in this issue. Where oh where can one go to “plane spot” these days?? 15 minutes from KEWR but a world away to try to spot any aircraft. Your arrested & in jail even if you look the wrong way! Today’s security, yet you can be 1 unfortunate victim of the “knockout” craze in NYC. Something wrong with this picture?? PATRICK, do really read these reply’s?? If so, a simple YES to the e-mail, and I will believe you.

    • Pedro says:

      Gravelly Point, close to Reagan Airport in Washington, was (or maybe still is) a nice place for plane spoting.

      I remember, around 1999, seeing there a near miss, of an MD landing and an A320 entering the runway at the same time. The MD, at something like 50 meters above the A320, diverted really fast.

  5. Michael says:

    One of my duties while stationed in Germany, circa 1971, was to deliver troop manifests to RhineMain/Frankfurt airbase. My shortcut took me across the end of the active runway. At night on foggy winter nights I was sometimes surprised by a Lufthansa 707 at 50’over the top of my vehicle. The landing lights lite through the fog made the area glow.

  6. Ad absurdum per aspera says:

    Here’s a silly question. Doesn’t that runway, from that direction, have you landing with a tailwind? (My (mis)understanding is that the island is in the trade winds and usually gets ten or twenty knots ranging from the northeast or the southeast.) Why not operate from west to east — terrain obstacles? noise considerations? Or have I got it all bass-ackwards?

    As for deliberately standing there, I can think of about a thousand better things to do on a tropical island vacation than expose myself to conditions that would call for personal protective equipment at work, but de gustibus…

    • Thomas says:

      Planes coming in to land over Maho beach are heading directly into the prevailing wind. The runway at SXM is perfectly aligned with the north-easterly trade wind.
      In English St. Martin and the neighboring islands are called the Leeward Islands, which doesn’t make much sense. For these islands to be on your leeward side, you would have to be out on the Atlantic Ocean. But then you have all of the Americas on your leeward side, and not only the Leeward Islands.
      In German the Leeward Islands are called “Inseln ueber dem Wind”, which means “islands above the wind”. The islands along the southern edge of the Caribbean (e.g. Curacao) are called “Inseln unter dem Wind”, “islands below the wind”. This makes a lot of sense. If you were on a sailing ship in the middle of the Caribbean, and you wanted to get to one of the “islands above the wind”, it would be a hard up-hill slog. Going to the “islands below the wind” would be no sweat.

  7. Rod says:

    As an aerogeek, I’ve naturally watched many a video of this place. One that doesn’t fit the usual profile is this one of a Westjet 737 so low on final approach you can see a pool of jetblast following it as it goes around. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNhAYKM-7LQ
    Now That would have been a Real spectacle if it had somehow managed to hit the water.
    I ain’t crossin’ no Atlantic just to go to St Maarten, but the Greek island of Skiathos is somewhat similar, though I suppose there are no heavies there at all.

  8. Mark says:

    looks scary to me, i wouldn’t try it. The best I can offer is being in a Boston harbor tour boat that stopped for a few minutes off a Logan airport runway. There were low clouds that day, planes would seemingly appear magically, cross above us, and land. Sometimes they were not lined up too well and the pilot corrected as soon as he/she had visual. It was fun, but not scary.

  9. Art Knight says:

    Does anyone know where this was filmed?


  10. Eirik says:

    I think its a bit disrespectful, just leaving a note about the hurricane at the very end of the post.
    You know these islands have been hit extremely hard lately, and then to post this as a joyful experience to promote yourself as a first priority, its bad judgement, at best. Or bad timing. I didnt expect this.

  11. Vinnie Prim says:

    I am a private pilot have been there several times. Always loved to see the KLM 747-400 land and take off. It is a BLAST. Was more concerned with the take off in case you had to abort with such a large powerful aircraft. But the landing according to the approach plate was so much longer than the usual 5 or so miles, like 4 times longer, you can’t even see the aircraft on most of the Final. The best You Tube videos of landing from the cockpit and the automated announcements, e.g. 100, 50, retard, etc. That is scary enough alone just hearing it in the comfort of your living room, just imagine being the PIC and hundreds of lives depend on you.
    Regards, Vinnie

  12. Mark Maslowski says:

    I thought the concerns about that airport were about the departure, not the approach.

  13. Alastair says:

    You surely don’t need to be an aviation expert to wonder about an landing aircraft being defined as ‘low-flying’. I mean, that’s kinda the point, isn’t it? Landing at 1000′ AGL would be a severe test of the undercarriage’s suspension…

  14. Jur says:

    Actually KLM was flying A332’s on the direct flight from AMS and TUI used B788’s. Recently though the old faithful 747’s have been making a comeback flying disaster relief flights via CUR. Even an A124 was dispatched from Eindhoven AB!

  15. lahmisc says:

    Its so sad what Irma did to the Caribbean islands. I’ve seen online videos of Skiathos in the Greek islands that look like a very similar setup – beach, road, runway, and very low flying landing planes.

  16. Dan Ullman says:

    Six or seven years ago I read an article about Maho. It used either that photo or one very much like it (i.e. professional). The article quoted an airline pilot saying that it had a short runway.

    The funny thing about it was the difference in prospective,reasonably, between the journalist and the pilot. The pilot defined “short” as mildly annoying and something that could use a couple of more 100 feet. The journalist defined “short” as barely within the stopping distance of a 747.

  17. Dick Waitt says:

    In some posted photos of that beach the top rail on the perimeter fence is shown to be bent – not severely but apparently the result of some sort of contact.

    Might this be the result of a short landing, or simply of spectators holding on tightly?

  18. Simon says:

    Spotting at Maho is cool, apart form the fact that there’s no more 744s there and even the Triple-7 is a rare charter. AF’s A340 is the only really big bird there nowadays (on a regular schedule). There is KLM’s Dreamliner which is of course a nice aircraft, but only medium size. The occasional 757 (DL, AA, and what used to be US Airways) is even smaller. There’s a lot of 737s of course, but well, meh. Insel Air shows up with old MD-80s which are neat because they’re so incredibly loud – noticeably more so than larger but more modern jets.

    Thanks, Patrick, for pointing out that all this “they come in extra low because of the spectators” and “it’s a super dangerous airport because of the low approach” is all just made up baloney. SXM is neither dangerous nor difficult to fly into. It *is* cool, but that’s because spotters can get so close to the runway. And of course because it’s Saint Marten which is just a really nice island (if you go to the right parts) in a very special corner of the world. While there you should take a Winair hop over to Saba. Now that is really special place. And the flight there, plus SAB airport, that is about as special as it gets.

    • Simon says:

      Come to think of it, from a piloting perspective it’s probably the departure at SXM that’s a bit more special. Most of the time you’ll depart away from the beach headed towards the mountains. So that involves a fairly brisk right turn to clear terrain after positive climb established. I imagine engine failure on T/O will be a more exciting procedure at SXM, as will missed approach. Definitely not “dangerous”, but I suppose more interesting than at let’s say AMS.

  19. Simon says:

    Judging by your photo, Patrick, you actually experienced Maho at its nicest. Other times of the year a lot of the sand gets washed out and there’s hardly any sand left between the exposed boulders. Those boulders can be seen in a lot of the SXM pics and videos people post.

    Regardless of what shape the beach is in, the plane spotting from Sunset Bar is still great (especially while chowing down on a “Pizza American Airlines”) of course. But the beach changes a lot with the seasons. The three times I’ve been there myself so far, it’s always been different.

    That said, if you want to go to a beach for the sake of the beach on Saint Martin, you don’t go to Maho anyway. Up to a couple of weeks ago I would have suggested checking out the GCBC’s beach in Grand Case (the French side is way nicer in terms of view and food anyway), but sadly that’s now all different. Irma has devastated Saint Martin and it breaks my heart to think of all of the friendly people on the island that now have only ruins left in what used to be paradise.

  20. Gene says:

    Maho beach, as a beach, is gone. Nothing left but cobbles, no sand at all. Getting blown away by jet blast now would likely cause serious injury.

    • James David Walley says:

      I’m assuming they’ll be trucking in sand and restoring it sometime after the more-important recovery is done. It’s a big tourist attraction, after all; plus, just leaving it in its current condition would be highly hazardous, given that people are going to be planespotting there regardless of the risks.