Taking Wing: Airports of the Caribbean

Visiting the special places all pilots should experience firsthand at least once.

Princess Juliana International Airport
The iconic approach to Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) is more impressive to the throngs on Maho Beach than it is to the pilots of the landing aircraft.Flying

It's a Tuesday morning in February, and I'm headed to work. Don't cry too hard for me, dear reader; work in this case involves a round trip to Rio de Janiero and back in the 767. Today's commute to my base airport is a rare two-legger, and on the first leg I'm traveling on an even rarer paid ticket. A few days ago Windbird made a beautiful starlit passage from tony St. Barth to the sunny isle of Antigua, which my employer serves but once a week. Thus I am starting my day by boarding a Winair Twin Otter bound for Sint Maarten (SXM). Accompanying me are my parents, who are heading home from nine sun-soaked days aboard Windbird, a welcome respite from an exceptionally snowy Minnesota winter.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Twin Otters, and also for Winair — officially, Windward Islands Airways. I’ve long maintained the notion that if my career path or my life took a hard left turn, I’d head down to the islands and get a job flying Twotters.

Actually, that’s not quite right; the fantasy really involves ferrying the Swedish Bikini Team around in a Grumman Albatross! Alas, openings for that particular job seem to be rather scarce, and today the Twin Otter, along with the Saab 340, DHC-8, ATR-42 and Britten-Norman Islander, are the primary aircraft that connect the long and intermeshed chain of islands that form the Lesser Antilles. Of those airplanes, the Twin Otter goes to all the coolest airports down here.

The first two Caribbean airports I flew to were San Juan, Puerto Rico, and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. San Juan's Luiz Muñoz Marin International Airport (TJSJ) is in all respects a normal American mainline airport, with air traffic control — more often than not delivered with a crisp Midwestern accent — radar and a couple of long runways with straight-in ILS approaches. St. Thomas' Cyril E. King International Airport (TIST) is different. Here the restraints of limited flat terrain on a small island make themselves known, and only by reclaiming part of Brewer's Bay did the locals build a relatively short 7,000-foot runway. There is a substantial hill just southeast of Runway 10, which results in special engine-out procedures and occasional load-limited performance for airline flights. I love flying the B757 into St. Thomas; deplaning is via airstairs, and as soon as you exit the aircraft and feel the warm, sticky caress of the trade winds, there's no doubt that you're back in the islands.

The farther you go down the chain, the more interesting it gets. Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM/TNCM) serves the dual-nationality island of Saint-Martin (France) and Sint Maarten (Netherlands). Here the 7,546-foot runway is sandwiched onto a sandy spot between Maho Beach and Simpson Bay Lagoon.

The former is world-renowned among airplane spotters as a picturesque place to capture photos of aircraft flying low over scantily clad holiday-makers; and also as a place for said holiday-makers, well-lubricated with Painkillers from the nearby Sunset Bar, to cling to the airport fence while being sandblasted by departing aircraft. From a pilot's perspective, the landing is pretty standard, especially since the introduction of the RNAV approach; you barely notice Maho Beach passing underneath on short final.

Saba’s Mount Scenery
The world’s shortest commercial runway at 400 meters, as seen from the summit of Saba’s Mount Scenery.Flying

The departure gets your attention. Taking off into the prevailing winds on Runway 10, you're pointed straight at some sizable mountains, necessitating an immediate right turn over Simpson Bay Lagoon. If you lose an engine, you actually have to navigate visually between two hills to the south. When Windbird spent two weeks anchored in the lagoon last month, every afternoon Dawn and I enjoyed a veritable airshow of departing airliners banking jauntily overhead. It became a daily ritual to salute my airline's 757 with a dram of Mount Gay rum.

Besides the few dozen jet airliners that arrive and depart every day — including a couple of heavies to Paris and Amsterdam — SXM is the main base for Winair and is served by several other small regional airlines, and also hosts a good deal of general aviation traffic. I particularly enjoy watching the Twin Otters and Islanders as they make tight curving visual approaches all the way to the runway, or start their departure turnout barely out of ground effect, cutting inside the lagoon and seemingly scraping the masts of the boats anchored in Simpson Bay. It’s a fine display of stick-and-rudder flying, though in reality SXM is a rather tame airport compared to the challenges that await these pilots at their two closest out-island destinations.

The first of these we visited aboard Windbird was Saba, a Dutch island 25 miles south of Sint Maarten.

Approached from sea level, Saba is a rugged, imposing, almost inhabitable-looking rock jutting straight out of the water and scraping the clouds at nearly 3,000 feet. It seems unlikely that she could be home to some 2,000 hardy souls, much less have four separate villages, a medical school, a road network, a working port and a commercial airport. But all this is true.

Told by Dutch experts that a road connecting the villages was a technical impossibility, an enterprising local took a correspondence course in civil engineering and proceeded to engage the populace in hacking “The Road that Couldn’t Be Built” out of the side of Mount Scenery. Shortly thereafter, in 1963, they bulldozed a seaside hill to create the Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (TNCS), featuring a runway all of 400 meters (1,312 feet) long with cliffs on both ends!

St. Barth’s Gustaf III Airport
The approach to Runway 10 at St. Barth’s Gustaf III Airport requires a 6-degree-glideslope to plunge through a gap in a ridge, clear a busy traffic circle and follow this grassy slope.Flying

Saba is like no place you've ever been, and is unlike anything you'd expect to find in the Caribbean; it's essentially a couple of quaint European villages suspended in the sky. There are no beaches. There's no nightlife save for a few local pubs. There's hardly any tourism, with a couple of small hotels and cottage rentals. What Saba offers is world-class scuba diving, excellent hiking, unique history and genuinely friendly locals. If you're lucky enough to visit sometime, the bad news is that the airport is closed to GA aircraft. The good news is that you can easily fly your airplane into SXM and take Winair to Saba; they have four Twin Otter flights per day. If you do so, be sure to board early and snag seat 1B for an eye-popping view of Winair's talented pilots landing a regional turboprop on the world's shortest commercial runway.

Whereas Saba might be considered a hidden gem, the world has long since beat feet to the well-known charms of the chic French isle of Saint-Barthélemy, only 15 miles east of St. Martin. St. Barth is a favorite of the rich, the famous and the beautiful — but even the jet set have to leave their jets behind to land at the infamously tricky little Gustaf III Airport (TFFJ).

It’s not just the short 2,170-foot runway that abruptly dead-ends in the beautiful cerulean waters of Baie de Saint-Jean — it’s the fact that the steep 6-degree approach slices between two cliffs and passes about 20 feet above the busiest traffic circle on the island before closely following a grassy slope to the runway! There are multiple YouTube videos of slightly low airplanes’ landing gear missing the heads of gawping tourists by a couple of feet.

On our recent visit to St. Barth, a steady stream of arriving Twin Otters, Islanders, Caravans and PC-12s — plus a few single-engine pistons — flew over Windbird's anchorage near Gustavia before disappearing into a notch in the hillside. It looked crazy, but I figured up close there had to be more terrain separation than appears from a distance.

Nope! When we made our way to the traffic circle via rented scooter, the approach looked even more challenging. The trade winds pour through that notch and the turbulence for approaching aircraft is obvious; this in a place where a slight deviation and a poorly timed Sprinter van could spell disaster. Unlike Saba, you can fly your own airplane into St. Barth, but you’ll need a thorough checkout from a local CFI first. These can be found at Grand-Case Airport (TFFG) on the French side of St. Martin.

Both Saba and St. Barth regularly make clickbait top-10 lists of “The World’s Most Dangerous Airports.” If that were truly the case, you’d expect to see the carcasses of wrecked airplanes scattered around the field, but accidents are quite rare at both airports. That’s a testament to the skill of the pilots involved, the quality of the training they receive and the recency of their experience — three factors that always help manage risk in high-threat operations.

Today's Winair flight from Antigua to Sint Maarten is a comparative milk-run, a 100-mile loll among puffy cumulus clouds from one long runway to another, covering the same stretch of Caribbean Sea that Windbird traversed over the past week. Still, as I watch from seat 1A, I admire the smoothness and precision with which the first officer, a young woman from the islands, hand-flies the airplane for the 40-minute duration of the flight.

Approaching SXM from the east, she eases back on the overhead throttles, spirals smartly down over Maho Beach and touches down on Runway 10 with a gentle chirp. “Nice flying,” I say as I disembark.

My parents and I have a few hours to kill before our flights back to the land of work and snow; we’ll ride the dollar bus out to Maho Beach to watch some jet arrivals while having lunch at Sunset Bar. Life is pretty good down here in the islands; even better when you’re an aviation geek.