Flying time from the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten in the Caribbean to nearby St. Barths is 15 minutes. The last minute is a real doozy.

I have been thinking about the two islands with the news of Hurricane Irma’s rage this past week. Both islands were hit hard. Now, with the devastation in Florida, so much destruction over so short a time is hard to comprehend. For the moment, I prefer to remember what was.

In the annals of global flight, the landing at St. Barths is a classic – one that makes most lists of aviation superlatives, quite often accompanied by the term “white knuckle,” as in grasping an armrest hard out of fear.

There are tiny islands throughout the world that hope to develop some sort of tourist base. To do so they need an airport, but there is usually not much space for a landing strip. So they build their terminals where they can, maybe in a tiny valley between a hill and a beach. Only small airplanes can approach these fields; and they are usually built to not need much taxiing room, but the landing itself, what an adventure.

Back on St.Martin/St. Maarten there is a big boy’s international airport that was built by the Dutch, who share the island with the French (hence the double name). Nearby are several islands with the ritziest being the French’s St. Barthelemy (Barths for short). At Gustav, the island’s only town, there is a small harbor, which is often filled with the yachts of the rich and, sometimes, famous. Exclusive resorts and grand vacation homes are tucked into various coves.

There is a ferry from the main island, but the ride, believe me, can be bumpy. (It's not a good sign when a boat's crew hands out barf bags.) Then there is the flight. Most of the service connecting St. Martin is by an airline called Winair that operates a small fleet of de Havilland Twin Otter prop planes designed for island hopping.

Capacity is probably about 20 passengers, for which a couple of seats are practically right behind the pilot’s open cockpit. It is possible to lean over and talk to the pilots in flight, though I prefer to hear them chatter among themselves in that beautiful Caribbean patois. Hearing the dialect always gets me charged up about being in the Caribbean.

To fly into St. Barths requires special training and a license to prove it. The plane’s approach begins by curving over a hill then beginning a sharp descent. There is a highway on the hill. At one point the aircraft and the traffic seem to pass so close to each other that a driver could tickle the plane’s belly. Ahead is the runway that approaches as fast as a crashing wave. Contact! And the plane begins to roll, but wait! what’s that ahead, a sandy beach where people are participating in beach activities while not caring that an airplane is heading toward them. Then the plane screeches to a halt. I have always been a squeamish flyer, but I love this flight; especially seeing the pilots perform and then gazing at the sea below and then the sudden turn toward land.

Flying back is much less adventurous once the wheels lift without having knocked over a surfer. Although I did experience one peculiarity: Our return flight to St.Martin arrived at St. Barths a half hour ahead of time. Since there were only two of us on the flight, the pilot decided to leave early. We landed in St. Martin 15 minutes later. Was this an aviation first? A flight landing at its destination before it was supposed to have even left its departure point.

From the early accounts of the hurricane both islands were severely damaged last week. I know they are only two seashells on life’s beach, but they are shells that I cling to. Most often the sea gives us a bounty to cherish, but sometimes there is much to fear. 

 


See for yourself.

Here is a YouTube video of the pilots’ perspective as they land at St. Barths. There are also several exterior shots of various planes arriving. Notice the proximity of the vehicular traffic on the hill above. May the runway be busy again soon.


Acknowledgement: Panduro Video


 

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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), is available at local bookstores and at book websites.

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