Under the Big Jets

On St. Maarten, the beach party is loud.

KLM 747
A KLM 747 on approach to Princess Juliana Airport adds another tourist attraction to St. Maarten’s aqua waves.

You’ve seen the photos of airliners casting shadows over the heads of beachgoers. You’ve watched the YouTube videos of people getting blasted by the jet exhaust. You have either shaken your head in disbelief or longed to be there yourself. I have done both and now I can say: There is no way to understand the phenomenon of St. Maarten’s Maho Beach without experiencing it.

Earlier this year, I finally made the pilgrimage to St. Maarten, home to Princess Juliana International Airport and its famous surfside approach. An activity once on the bucket list of only the most serious aviation nerds, spending a day at the west end of Runway 10 has become so popular that even those with just a tenuous connection to flying feel compelled to try it.

The largest infusion of spectators comes from the many cruise ships porting at Philipsburg, on St. Maarten’s Dutch side. Aly Bello-Cabreriza, a spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Line, estimates her company alone sends a hundred people each visit. I saw many of them arriving on coach buses large enough to lap over the center line of the modest two-lane road that separates the beach from the runway.

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“Once I found out we were coming to St. Maarten, I was like ‘I’ve got to go to the Princess Juliana Airport’ because I’ve been watching pictures online forever,” said Chip VanPelt, who was there from Ocala, Florida, with his wife Kimberly.

Not all visitors observe from the shore. There are guided jetski convoys and what would have been my choice had it been running the weekend I visited: the 75-foot aluminum party boat operated by Airport Adventure SXM. In the seven months since it began operation, 7,000 people have filled the lulls between arriving airplanes by swimming, snorkeling, or lounging on the boat’s deck, said manager Margriet Nieuwenhoven. “We have an entertainer on board, so we play music and he announces the airplanes that are landing,” she explained.

The most dramatic views, however, are on the beach in an area slightly longer than a football field and one-third the width, a sandy expanse between the runway and the sea. This is Georgino Barnes’ territory.

A lifelong resident of St. Maarten and the owner of Friendly Island Photography, Barnes comes here daily with a camera and a bullhorn. He bellows the flight information that everybody wants to hear and safety warnings that are often ignored.

“You stand at the fence at your own risk,” he announced one afternoon to a man old enough to know better. The visitor was up against the airport’s chain link fence, his feet on a barrier on which was written in red paint “Do not stand. Danger. Jet Blast.”

Local businesses have capitalized on the plane-spotting.
Local businesses have capitalized on the plane-spotting.

Amid the hordes of aviation enthusiasts, a subset come to find out what jet blast feels like. In April 2012, two unidentified thrill-seekers lost their hold on the airport fence and were blown across the street by the blast from a JetBlue airliner preparing for takeoff. One slammed into a Jersey barrier, and both were hospitalized. The horrifying video on YouTube has been viewed more than eight million times.

JetBlue wouldn’t answer questions about the event, but Marla Chemont of the St. Maarten Tourism Board said all the U.S. carriers have changed their procedures for taking off on the 7,500-foot runway, where an eastward departure requires an early turn to avoid a mountain. From what I observed during my visits, only the MD-80 operated by Haiti’s InselAir and some corporate jets are still blasting folks hanging on to the fence with engine run-ups close to the beach.

“We do worry,” Chemont said. “I pray that nothing major ever happens.”

Besides safety warnings, Barnes offers another valuable service to beach visitors: photography. Many beachgoers want their photos taken beneath a thundering airliner. But even with a selfie stick, it is hard to get the timing right. I watched the Ragan family of Napa, California, struggle until I finally offered to take the photo for them.

“We didn’t know that it would be that hard,” Rachelle Ragan told me later. “They come a lot faster than you expect.” I could afford to be generous. I’d already hired Barnes to take my photo with the KLM Boeing 747 due to arrive in an hour on its three-times-weekly schedule. If Barnes has any challenges with his business model, it is that while he has thousands of potential customers, the money shot is with the Queen of the Skies, and he can sell that photo just once a day. Even that will end in November, when KLM starts flying smaller jets to St. Maarten.

With the cameras and the daredevils, the noise and the anticipation, Maho Beach has even more of a frenetic atmosphere then Venice’s Rialto Bridge or Montmartre in Paris in August. What separates this tourist attraction from any other I’ve experienced is how in moments as fleeting as an airplane passing overhead, all visitors are unified in a common appreciation of flight.

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