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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.