Streetcar: Tropical Landings

As the plane climbed from Queen Juliana airport on the island of St. Maarten (also known as St. Martin), the pilot announced that the total flight time would be 10 minutes. “Ten minutes!” I thought to myself, “Why so long?” Though, had I wanted to, I could’ve just leaned from my seat into the cockpit and asked.

In the world of quirky commercial flights one of the most intriguing is the jump, performed several times daily, from St. Maarten to nearby St. Barth (also known as St. Barts). Landing on small islands, where there’s little land for airstrips, has always been a problem. The St. Barth airstrip is a renowned example. Both the pilot and co-pilot had their hands on a throttle as the Winair airlines propeller-driven de Havilland Twin-Otter rumbled along the runway toward its ascent. There was no cruising level in this trip. The ascent ended as the descent began. Below, the Caribbean was speckled with sailboats and yachts; ahead St. Barth appeared. A bartender had spooked a woman, now sitting in the back of the 20-seat plane, when she told him she was going to be on this flight. She braced herself for what’s often described as a “white-knuckle” landing. “How long have you been doing this?” a girl seated up front asked the copilot, who was within talking distance. “Long enough,” he answered.

As the pilot announced the impending landing the plane dived through the down-slope between two hills, past a windsock standing on one peak and toward the short runway, which ends with a beach and then the sea. Wheels hit the ground; flaps raised to provide braking. The plane stopped short of the beach so that none of the beach-goers had to scamper.

“Wow!” the guy in front of me yelled. “That wasn’t so bad,” the woman in the back added – though it was with a noticeable sigh of relief.

I had made this flight before and learned that the real adventure isn’t as much the landing but the flight schedule. Our return flight, for example, was scheduled for 1:45 p.m. When a hotel clerk checked to confirm the time she was told 1:15. After a second conformation it was 1:05. When we checked in, we were told that since we were the only ones booked on what was by then the 1 p.m. trip, they would put us on the noon flight.

Something similar happened once before when we were schedule for 2:30 p.m. The plane arrived around 2:05. Because there were no other passengers, the plane prepared to depart right away. I experience a flight that landed at its destination before it was even supposed to take off at its point of origin.

On our last trip, when we had just arrived at St. Maarten, we were told that although it was a half-hour before its scheduled departure and although we had confirmed reservations, our flight to St. Barth was already full and we would have to take a later plane. Now I’m not saying that a gratuity handed to a gate agent had anything to do with it, but somehow he was able to find space for us on the partially filled craft.

Still it’s the landing that lives on in legend, even having been featured in a TV special about daring airplane feats. (Pilots need special certification to land on St. Barth.) Behind the counter in the lobby of the Guanahanai hotel, where we stayed, there’s even a vintage poster- sized picture of a descending plane passing the windsock. “Has there ever been an accident?” the girl up front asked the co-pilot as the arriving plane turned toward the tiny sun-swept terminal. “Not in a longtime,” he answered in a clipped Caribbean accent.

At the end of the runway the people on the beach relaxed near the waves. They just shouldn’t build their sand castles too high.

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