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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