Thursday, March 21, 2013

Surf, Sand and [Plane]Spotting: Where "Low Flying Aircraft" Takes on a More Urgent Meaning

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

There are only a tiny handful of places in our aviation world that are "must see" locations for any licensed pilot or aviation enthusiast. KOSH during Airventure week is an obvious one, as well as Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the NASM's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in nearby Chantilly, VA.

But one not-so-obvious stop that we in the aviation family must check out is a fairly non-descript sliver of sand under the approach end of Princess Juliana International Airport's runway 10 on the island of St. Maarten. It is Maho Beach, and all that separates it from the TDZ is a tiny two-lane road and a chain link fence. While other Caribbean beaches offer warm turquoise water and incredible scenery, what draws people to Maho is one thing...very VERY low flying airplanes.

Let me set the scene:
Photo: Aldo Bidini
You are stretched out on your beach towel facing west on Maho Beach, sipping a tall cocktail with some sort of fruit skewed beneath a small but colorful umbrella. As a light tropical breeze gently wafts in from the east, off in the distance to the west, a pair of small, bright lights come into view, growing larger by the second. People start appearing out of nowhere, stopping their cars on the road, looking towards the sea. Very soon, an inbound 747-800 is seen, gear down, slow and dirty. People start to get giddy, cameras at the ready as the four-seven continues towards the numbers, located just behind you on the airport grounds. In a controlled descent, the giant Boeing is aimed straight for you, dropping fast towards the beach. As it roars by just feet above the sand, some people cringe while others bask in the wonderful sight and sound of 688,000 pounds of airplane slipping by so close it appears you can almost touch the gear. The people ducking for cover are tourists who had no clue Maho Beach sits right under the approach of a major runway well-suited for heavies. The people yelling, screaming, and loving every second of this scene...yep...they are all pilots.
Recently, Tom Haines, AOPA Pilot's Editor in Chief and the association's Senior Vice President of Media, visited St. Maarten, and spoke to Airplanista about visiting Maho Beach. Haines is a 3,000-plus hour private pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings, and owner of a 1972 A36 Bonanza. He's flown more than 100 models of airplanes from LSAs to 737s, so it is safe to say a visit to Maho made sense to this long-time aviator.


"My wife and I and three other couples have been going to the Caribbean every other winter for more than 20 years," Haines said. "As we were looking for another interesting Caribbean island to visit, I voted in favor of St. Maarten in part because I wanted to visit Maho Beach and experience both the low approaching aircraft and the blast of departing airliners from just across the street. While the Maho Beach experience was a draw for the island, we were mostly in search of a quiet and lazy beach vacation, which we definitely found at the Radisson Blu in a cove called Anse Marcel."

Photo: Tom Haines
The planespotting at Maho Beach is legendary, and a chalkboard on the beach lists the incoming airliner flights. The larger airliners land in early to mid-afternoon, and the Sunset Bar, a restaurant right next to the beach, makes a great place to watch the action. "The bar serves good food and provides a place to watch arriving aircraft," Haines explained. "We would have lunch there, occasionally jaunting out to the beach to watch an airplane when the big ones would come in. They come in over the water, pass just over the beach and then touch down just beyond the fence. Light airplanes are fun to watch, but arriving jetliners are a real thrill to see, hear, and feel that closely as they pass overhead."

As far as the planespotting goes, it seems hard to top Maho when someone who was there describes the wild scene:
"While the arrivals are impressive," Haines says, "the beach crowd really goes wild for jet departures. Some airline pilots really know how to put on a show, taxiing right to the end of the runway and turning onto the runway with their tails up close to the fence. They then stand on the brakes as they bring the thrust up. Although we didn't witness it, some people have reportedly hung onto the fence and been blown across the road by the blast as the airliners begin their takeoff roll. Regardless, the thrust sandblasts everything behind the airplane with people whooping and hollering in the chaos. It's quite a sight--and sound. The airliners trundle down the runway, liftoff and make a quick right turn to avoid a mountain. Seeing big airplanes turn that low to the ground is impressive. Even if you're not into the rush of the landing and takeoff, it's a fun place to watch airplanes. We saw everything from light single piston airplanes to Cessna Caravans, a Cessna Mustang, a Gulfstream, numerous de Havilland Twin Otters, and lots of Boeings and Airbuses all in the matter of about 90 minutes."
 Haines recommends a stop at Maho Beach for any aviator who wants to enjoy a gorgeous Caribbean island while getting it on with some serious planespotting action. "Any aviator who visits St. Maarten should make the time to visit Maho Beach (frequently called Sunset Beach on the island). It's a definite thrill. The nice thing about Maho is that you can count on the weather being good and airplanes landing and taking off on Runway 10 because the winds almost always favor that runway. Even when the winds are less favorable, that runway is primarily used because the mountain at the other end makes it tough to land on 28, at least for the airliners."

Low-flying airplanes, extreme airplane noise, a tropical location, and drinks with umbrellas. What more could an #Avgeek ask for? Except maybe being there the day someone organizes an air show at TNCM so the lucky people on Maho Beach can watch a flight of Blue Angels, a dozen B-25 bombers and maybe Sean Tucker's Oracle Challenger (flown upside down of course) roar over the fence so close you can feel the airplane love up close and personal.