A little too close for comfort at Sint Maarten’s airport

Have you heard about the Princess Juliana International airport on the Dutch side of Sint Maarten? If not, please finish reading my story first 😘 and then search for it on YouTube. You’ll thank me, I promise.

The runway at this international airport starts just across a narrow road from Maho Beach. That mean you can get REALLY close to some REALLY big planes. I’m not that into airplanes. Or danger. Or loud noises. So I didn’t think a visit to the beach would be much fun at all. But it’s something you’ve absolutely got to do when you visit St Martin. And once we found a parking space, and walked down to the narrow coarse sand beach, I quickly got hooked! Here’s how it works:

Tourists hang out on the beach in bikinis, holding beer bottles, and keeping one eye on the single short runway less than 100 yards to the east, and the other on the horizon to the west. Arriving flights first appear as a small speck on the horizon. Once they’ve lined up for that oh-so-close runway, the speck grows into a plane fast! If it’s a commuter plane from nearby St Barts or tiny Saba island, it’s still impressive to see a plane roar by directly over your head and touch down RIGHT over there.

But if it’s one of the big 737s from Toronto or New York…. well then it’s just crazy! The speck turns into a little plane then into a huge plane, and next thing you know you’re looking straight up at a bright blue plane belly labeled Delta. The engine noise roars in your ears. You can clearly see the landing gear and the all the details of the bottom of the wings. Approaching planes clear the fence by only 100 feet – less if they need a last minute course correction or encounter a cross wind. A tour guide told us that the beach changes constantly due to wind and weather conditions. A few weeks ago, a rare west wind had built up a seven-foot drift of sand. Visitors who stood on the drift were almost even with the top of the barrier fence. Phew! No way! Just standing on the beach was close enough for me.

Departing planes taxi toward the beach, then slowly turn east toward the interior of the island. The assembled beachgoers wave, which I initially thought was a little bit hokey. But… the planes are so close, you can actually see the faces of the pilot and co-pilot. Pretty soon, I got caught up in it all and started waving wildly at each departing plane. And if you’re there between 2:00 and 4:00, you’ll see the big ‘uns. The fence that separates the airport from the road is painted in red and white warning stripes at the middle of the runway. Traffic in both directions stops (on one of the main roads on the island) because drivers don’t want jetwash to scour the paint off their vehicles. The jet engines ramp up. The roar gets louder. When the big plane starts rolling, the jetwash across the road and across the beach is fierce! Hats blow off heads. Towels and toys bags blow into the ocean. If you’re crazy enough to stand right against the fence, you’d get blown backwards. No way! I was satisfied just watching the chaos around me.

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