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The Airport on the Beach: Princess Juliana International Airport at St. Maarten

35.2k19
Last updated Tue, 24 Sep 2013 21:59:06 GMT
Originally posted on Thu, 03 May 2012 13:22:53 GMT

The waves crash in a loud cacophony of sound, spray and mist. Children laugh with glee as they run from the surf as it spills out, chasing them up the beach. Their parents gather under brightly lit beach umbrellas, sipping Caribs, the popular local blend of watermelon and raspberry rum with a touch of bitters, enjoying another lazy sun-splashed day on Maho Beach.

A KLM Boeing 747 landing over the beach.
A KLM Boeing 747 landing over the beach.

Off in the distance, an Air France Boeing 747 appears over Simpson Bay. As it approaches land, something seems to be wrong. It is thundering toward the beach at tremendous speed, possibly in trouble. Coming in way too low, on a direct line with hundreds of beachgoers, the pilot either cannot or will not pull up. Are you about to witness one of the greatest airplane crashes of all time?

The 747 roars overhead so close it feels like you can touch the landing gear. It settles down safely just behind the beach at Princess Juliana Airport.

Known as the Airport on the Beach, pilots the world over share stories of the challenges of landing on this unique field. There is only a small road separating the end of the airstrip from Maho Beach, a slender band of sand that rings the edge of Simpson Bay on the Dutch side of St. Maarten / St. Martin. The tiny Caribbean island is the smallest landmass on the planet shared by two nations. 

Crown Princess of the Netherlands

Located 15 kilometres from Philipsburg, Princess Juliana Airport was named after the crown princess Juliana of the Netherlands, who arrived in 1944, soon after the airport opened its doors. It started life as a military airfield. Only a year later, it became a public airport.

Currently it is being upgraded to accommodate growing traffic from hordes of visitors descending from all over the globe. During the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, private planes pack every inch of the airport.

While the recent worldwide economic slowdown had a negative impact, local officials predict increasing traffic at Princess Juliana. The first phase of the upgrade plan was completed in 2001. They widened the jet way and improved the taxiway’s load capacity as well as improved the terminal. The second phase is well underway, which encompassed the construction of a new ATC, terminal, and radar station. There are now several different jet ways that can handle large aircraft such as 747s.

Blowback Thrillseekers

As dramatic as the landings are near Maho Beach, when the jets take off there is plenty of action as well. After jets taxi out to the end of the runway near Maho, they turn and face a ridge of mountains in the departure path on the other side of the airport. To get enough speed, they must “lean on the gas” and generate lots of speed quickly.

The "Jet Blast" danger sign on the beach at St. Maarten​​
The "Jet Blast" danger sign on the beach at St. Maarten.  Sign reads, "DANGER Jet blast of departing and arriving aircraft can cause severe physical harm resulting in extreme bodily harm and/or death."

The result is a massive blast from the engines that literally blows away people on the beach. It’s like a contained tornado. People, umbrellas, beach chairs and coolers get blown back towards and into the water with air traveling over 100mph.

Danger Signs

You might think this would discourage people from using this stretch of the beach, especially when they read any of several big signs.

On the contrary, some “blowback thrill seekers” like to stand in the path of the jet blast for the supposed thrill of being hit with tons of heat and air all at once. Some even try to hang on to the chain link fence surrounding the airfield.

On April 4, 2012, a French woman was captured on video attempting to hang on to the fence as a JetBlue flight took off. She tries to keep her grip but let go from the force, flailing and hurtling backward. The hurricane level winds carry her in the air like a leaf, over the road and slam her face first into a cement retaining wall.

Video of woman blown by jet blast

The video, uploaded to YouTube, received over 6 million views in less than three weeks. Miraculously, news reports came back that she did not suffer serious injuries. Still, the shocking footage prompted several airport officials to review the situation and decide if additional safeguards should be put in place to protect tourists.

Press Release

In a press release, they stated:

“We will continue to take all necessary measures and precautions to ensure the safety of all users of the airport, including persons visiting St. Maarten, and we urge everyone to adhere to all public safety warnings.

Princess Juliana International Airport has always done everything within its power to enhance the personal safety of all visitors to the destination, and in particular, users and visitors to our airport.

However, incidents such as this unfortunate one emphasize the need for everyone, including all our visitors to heed the clear warnings – about the dangers of jet blast – posted along the airport fence.”

One of the challenges for officials is that the close proximity of the airport and the dramatic take-offs and landings has become an inadvertent tourist attraction. In fact, the Sunset Bar and Grill, located near the runway, marks the departure of every flight on a surfboard and announce air traffic inside the bar (ABC News).

Farming to Tourism

While Princess Juliana serves the burgeoning tourist trade, it is also the transportation hub for surrounding islands Anguilla, St. Bart’s, Saba and St. Eustatius. It played a major role in the transition from a regional farming based economy to the current tourist-based model. Only San Juan has a busier airport in the Northern Eastern Caribbean area (pjaie.com).

Planespotters looking at landing aircraft while relaxing on Maho beach.
Planespotters looking at landing aircraft while relaxing on Maho beach.

Runway 10

The unique approach to Runway 10, coming in over the waters of the bay, is known to disorient pilot’s perceived altitude. They are coming in at a razor thin 3-degree slope over the beach and must rely on their equipment and experience to bring them in safely. Most pilots believe the departure toward the mountain is more difficult than the approach over water, as they must turn sharply to avoid the mountains. To adhere to increased international safety standards, 150 meters was added to the end of the runway.

Planespotters

The dramatic arrivals and departures have made Princess Juliana a tourist destination for aviation fans and planespotters worldwide. Fantastic photos and videos of planes barely missing the heads of vacationers are popular all over the internet. While local politicians and airport managers reassert their commitment to safety, they know that the excitement surrounding the take-offs and landings is one of the reasons people are flying to St. Maarten in the first place.

KLM 747 Landing

Ian Stephens

About Ian Stephens

Ian Stephens is a Flight Simulation enthusiast with a keen interest in aviation and technology. He has been writing for Fly Away Simulation for over 9 years.

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19 comments

Leave a Response
Julio PonteThu, 03 May 2012 15:01:06 GMT

Excelent videos. I have landed many times in this airport using FSX and it's great.

MannyThu, 03 May 2012 15:54:55 GMT

They just need to remove that short cement wall where the lady hit her head... that's a usless piece of wall.

CISKOThu, 03 May 2012 19:04:42 GMT

When someone is born an ass they will die an ass, it has a big sign for those that can read or can't read.

BobThu, 03 May 2012 20:38:15 GMT

Sooner or later this was going to happen. Inhaling toxic jet fumes up close is what you do when you can count your brain cells on one hand.

QantasguyThu, 03 May 2012 21:15:53 GMT

Yes, they probably need to remove the wall....from the beach and her head. For the silly ones who can't figure out its windy back there, a sign isn't gonna do much. It may keep the lawyers at bay tho. Hope she's ok and remembers the lesson, and we still get to have a beachside airport. What a fun place to hang out :)

VladNYCThu, 03 May 2012 22:38:31 GMT

I would install the think rubber wall so people won't get injured like that girl few weeks ago. Would love to go to that place though!

Pete WilsonFri, 04 May 2012 00:39:33 GMT

Can't understand why there is no blast fence ???

Dale WylieFri, 04 May 2012 06:24:19 GMT

I worked as pilot in Carribean and St Maarten is not too hard. St Barths is great to land so close a tourist could stand on the roof of a car and actually touch your wheels are the main runway is downhill and you needed to come in as low as possible. Regards Dale

zarak Fri, 04 May 2012 06:29:29 GMT

It's an awesome airport and its my favorite too. I've landed here so many times in fsx.

Christo CordierFri, 04 May 2012 14:30:20 GMT

Beautiful videos. I have landed many times there in FSX. Wow!

Carl E.Sat, 05 May 2012 12:49:48 GMT

I agree with the louvered jet blast deflection wall, it would be an added safety feature, but after watchi ng the many videos posted of the approaches of the aircraft this deflection wall could only be so high as to not put the planes at risk of striking their landing gear on approach. I also know that as far as FSX this approach is only an VFR approach, in the realm of real world aviation, if this airport facil ity doesn't have IFR technology that an investment in this equipment would drastically reduce the pilot's deception of their altitude on final, allowing for a more accurate glide slope to the runway, knowing this that for some of these aircraft need every inch of runway possible for achieving their goal of stopping.

Carl E.Sat, 05 May 2012 13:58:32 GMT

Adding to my last comment, that whether or not an autoland IFR approach is in use at this airport for some of if not most of the pilots it must still be exciting along with their passion to fly, to approach and land at this beautiful island.

RoymgTue, 08 May 2012 21:14:42 GMT

How can you protect stupid?

TezWed, 09 May 2012 01:12:50 GMT

Went there about 12 months ago, and it is just like all the videos. Sat at the Sunset Bar and chugged a couple of beers with the boys and watched everyone get blown off the beach!... Bought a T Shirt.. .ah the memories.....

Pro MemberCRJCAPIThu, 10 May 2012 13:27:04 GMT

Amazing... Julianna is one of the most visited airport in this part of the tropical holidays islands its major approach is made on rwy. nine; it's made possible by approaching on the vor because there's no ILS...

Dilson GesteiraSun, 20 May 2012 17:16:33 GMT

Except for those pro pilots Julianna approach is still as nice as a good challenger for FSX enthusiasts like me.

UfiikkiinFri, 03 Aug 2012 23:23:32 GMT

"HOLY CRAP"

the locals are hanging on to the fences,"WE LOVE IT HERE!"

Pro MemberManuelFri, 27 Sep 2013 19:12:26 GMT

Hello Ian. Another amazing article. I've seen lots of pictures and videos from spotters, but your enthusiastic and accurate words explain better the environment. Congratulations

Pro MemberDanSat, 23 Nov 2013 04:03:16 GMT

The Airport is terrific to land at. You can feel the thrust reverse the moment the wheels touch. Pilots for the heavy AC literally stand off their seats as the end of the runway approaches. I know a pilot who cycles through regularly and he loves the rush. He hates it in the rain though as their is very little breaking action, so they drop it hard after flair to compress into the runway and kill the speed. I have been there on vacation last year. We traveled the little road in a taxi and had lunch at the bar. Stood back and watched AA and US Air land and it was a thrill. No I didn't stand under the flight path because I am no fool. The flight in is a treat and the Island is peaceful and very friendly.

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