Recalling a Trip to the Carribean

The interesting people who made this solo flight memorable.

Landing airplane at St.Maarten
Joining the throng to watch airplanes land at Maho Beach, St. Maarten.Courtesy Dick Karl

The flight lasted all of 11 minutes. It is hard to imagine how such a short leg could be of such rapture, but it was. Credit must be given to the days that preceded the flight, because they hold the key to the distilled delight and might explain the hyperbole.

Tampa, Florida, to Lakeland, Florida, is all of 28 nautical miles. Light on fuel and alone, our Cessna CJ1 slung itself off the runway and the 3,000-foot level off was there just as I got the throttles back, the gear up, flaps up, ignitions off and the engine sync on. Clear, smooth and doing a leisurely 190 knots, the destination came into immediate view as the ATIS came up on the No. 2 radio. There was nothing left to do but land, taxi in, shut down and think.

In those few minutes the previous five days replayed in my head. We had flown the airplane to St. Maarten, Netherland Antilles (TNCM), in the Caribbean Sea so as to enjoy watching airplanes land at the Princess Juliana International Airport. You might have seen — and if you haven’t, you must watch — the videos taken from Maho Beach just short of the touchdown point on Runway 10.

There aren’t many places in the world that allow an airplane enthusiast to get this close to airplanes that big as they thunder overhead on landing or kick up sand when taking off.

Though it can be dangerous, it is irresistible for airplane people, and my wife and I went there with two of those — our friends Rob and Kathy. Rob is No. 9 in seniority at Southwest Airlines. Kathy is a pilot and has been a flight attendant and a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, among other things. Who better to sit with on the hotel deck to watch the traffic or to bob up and down with in the ocean as a Delta 757 landed? When it did, those wingtips threw off a vortex that you could hear. The sound was a low howl.

When we stood on the beach for several takeoffs we were blown down, sand-blasted with fine beach abrasive, and could see other onlookers tumble backward into the ocean. You could feel the magnitude of the energy in both cases viscerally; this wasn’t a dry dissertation about how many pounds of thrust there are on the Airbus A330 or how wingtip vortices splay off the wing of a 757. You could feel it on your skin, see it ripple the water.

On the second day, we booked a round-trip flight on Win Air from St. Maarten to St. Barthelemy (TFFJ), the other famous runway in the neighborhood that sits at the base of a steep hill. Because the winds are almost always out of the east, the landings at St. Bart’s are almost always a nosedive over the hill.

Rob mused that he might rather be the Twin Otter captain than hold the rarified position he does at his iconic airline. We were all eager to watch the pros put that baby down on the short (2,133 feet) runway with hill on one end and ocean on the other. This is another often-filmed approach and landing. I can’t tell if it’s more frightening to watch the alarming sight through the cockpit window or standing on top of the hill, wondering if that Pilatus PC-12 is going to land on your head. Either way, it is exhilarating.

It was, however, the human parts of this trip that made it so satisfying. After we landed, we chatted briefly with the pilots. The captain told Rob his dream was to get hired by Southwest and Rob told him his dream was to fly the Twin Otter into St. Bart’s. They had a good laugh about a job exchange.

Back in St. Maarten, the Sonesta Ocean Point Hotel was just coming back to life after Hurricane Irma’s devastation. The staff was over-the-top helpful, the renovated rooms gave good vigilance of the runway, and the food and drink were included at an introductory rate. How could this get any better?

Well, by meeting other airplane people. There were plenty of jet crews at the hotel and we struck up a lively conversation at one of the bars with one group from Million Air Dallas. They were cooling their jets (!) and keeping an eye on the Gulfstream G650 while the boss was relaxing. It was one of those nights; new friends that you felt like you’ve known forever. Chief Pilot Brett Jones told Rob that he hired retired airline pilots with the message that the new hires were to share their wisdom with the younger pilots with whom they flew.

“That’s a very sharp chief pilot,” said Rob, who has been one himself. “He signals to the new people that he expects them to mentor.”

The next day got even better. While enjoying some kind of fruit drink and watching a steady parade of big boys arriving from Europe and the States, I spotted a couple who had come prepared. Shirtless, the man had two cameras with lenses the size of oxygen tanks and a handheld radio.

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I could not resist.

“I’ve got 70,000 pictures. I know a lot of tail numbers by heart,” he said. I asked his line of work. “I’ve made a living playing the piano for 45 years. I’m in a band that is on the road 200 nights a year. This is one week when I can come down here and get some shots.” Oh, and the band? The Oak Ridge Boys.

Well, pull up a lounge chair, we said. Ron Fairchild told us how the band developed, grew and changed over the years. “We had one song that put us up there, called ‘Elvira.’ It was just a little ditty, we thought, but when we first played it, it was nothing but ‘bras and babies.’” We took that as country music slang for an enthusiastic crowd. Yes, they played at President George H.W. Bush’s funeral. And yes, he knows Willie Nelson, about whom he told a funny story.

“I got a lot of airplane pictures, but I have a hard time getting cockpit photos,” Fairchild said. “People just won’t let me into their jets.”

This is when we thought of the Gulfstream crew. Yes, of course, we’re going over tomorrow to start the engines, they said, and, yes, that would be fine. And so it came to pass that a crew from Dallas made a country music man from Nashville happy beyond description. And us too.

As I set the brakes in Lakeland, I thought this: Airplane folks, it can be safely said, are as amiable a bunch of people as they come.