My fiancee and I, chatting earlier this year while I was at my computer:
“Hey sweetie, did you realize our honeymoon cruise stops for a day at St. Martin?”
“Um, I think so, yea…”
“Did you know that is where they have the beach with the planes that just about land on your head?”
“Like the videos and pictures you showed me? Wow! That’s awesome! Sounds like we should spend that day there at that beach, you think?”
“Oh man, I am SO marrying the right woman!”
When I tell people I’m into aviation, my (now) wife likes to describe me to others as “like the super-excited train guy, but with planes”. Tongue-in-cheek, of course. In any case, once we made plans to visit world-famous Maho Beach on St. Martin, she listened to me tell her many times “I can’t believe I get to actually BE THERE” while I was browsing the many stunning photos online.
Fast forward to our day on the beach in Sint Maarten, which is on the Dutch side of the island of St. Martin (the other side being French).
The first thing you notice about Maho Beach is just how small it is. Near the busy southern end of the beach at the Sunset Bar and Grill, there’s just a few dozen feet or so of sand at a relatively sharp downward angle that separates the beautiful blue/green surf from Beacon Hill Road. The roadway is tiny, with barely enough room for one small/medium vehicle in each direction.
After that, it’s a chain link fence and BAM – there’s the pre-threshold area of runway 10 of Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM).
We were fortunate enough to arrive around 9:30am via taxi, about an hour or so before the crowds started to develop. This gave us ample time to scope out the area, rent a few lounge chairs and umbrellas ($20) and check out the flight schedule posted at the Sunset B&G.
I also had the chance to chat with a few locals, who gave me some interesting tips about the operations of the aircraft and pilots. More on that later.
Almost immediately, a Twin Otter of WinAir made its approach over the beach and landed on 010. I took this opportunity to watch and enjoy the environment for a moment. I noticed that the approach didn’t “feel” exceptionally low, but I knew from my research ahead of time that SXM’s 7,500 or so feet of runway wouldn’t present any issues for the smaller turboprops.
There would, however, be plenty of excitement from much larger aircraft throughout the day. Among them, we’d see A320s from JetBlue, 727s from AmeriJet, MD-80s from InselAir, and the big daddy, KLM’s 747-400 direct from Amsterdam, which was an 11:15am scheduled arrival.
With each successive arrival, people would gather along the beach close to the runway. Pictures were pretty difficult to get without a number of other people in them. When the KLM 747-400 finally arrived, I had my position directly under the middle of the flight path and had prepped my wife with the camera. She was in the middle of the roadway facing me, with the plane approaching me from behind. I noticed our bad luck, however: a local service truck was driving along the road between my wife and I, and, sure enough, it slowed to a crawl, putting its large cargo box just in front of the camera as the plane roared overhead. Oh well; the picture is good for laughs.
Between scheduled passenger arrivals (anywhere from 15-45 minutes apart), I took the opportunity to meet a few of the fun couples near where we were enjoying the sand, surf, and beautiful ocean water.
In the process, I met Tre from Virgina, an energetic, fun-loving guy who, like me, was also celebrating his honeymoon with his new wife. We hit it off, and he quickly offered this challenge to me as an airliner screamed by overhead: “You’re gonna ride the fence with me, right?”
“Riding the fence” (or “fence surfing”) is the term used to describe the frowned-upon practice of latching one’s self to the fence next to runway 10 during takeoff of an aircraft. As the aircraft approaches from the taxiway, they will swing around the 300 or so degrees with the aft end of the aircraft close to the fence, runup the engines, and scream down the runway for takeoff.
The predictable result, for those questionable souls who wish to “ride the fence”, is facing a noisy hurricane blast of hot jet thrust that can make the experience anything from a 20-second fun “bucket list” memory to a shockingly dangerous date with the side of physics that humans should not be tempting. People have sustained head injuries as recent as 2012 doing this, and I had no intention of taking this risk lightly.
“Sure; let’s do this.”
When we saw the Airbus A320 of JetBlue preparing to taxi, Tre and I wandered over excitedly to the fence. I had watched a few videos, and had learned that the most dangerous thing seemed to be people that either couldn’t hold on, or chose to turn around and high-tail it from the fence after the chaos started. We swore that in order to remain safe, would be doing neither. We had prepared ourselves with our swim goggles, took off our hats, and were sure to wear our shirts and footwear.
I decided to take my position standing on the guardrail and latched onto the top of the fence. As I looked around, we were two of about eight people on a beach of 300 that were actually on the fence. They all watched us, assuming the worst for us. The A320 rolled around the turn and lit the engines for takeoff.
It was like no other feeling in the world. It was a hot, humid, blast of wind straight at me. I kept my grip, and felt confident in my position. It was intense, but I felt safe. Before I knew it, I looked up to see the plane halfway down the runway. I looked at Tre and we both had the biggest smiles we’d probably ever had. High fives all around. Check that one off the bucket list.
Later, we hyped ourselves up again for the “fence riding” adventure of the departing “Big Daddy” 747-400. Interestingly, we found that, with such a large aircraft, and the four engines spaced out, it wasn’t much more than a really strong hot wind for a few seconds. If a 747 doesn’t rattle you, maybe we were getting too good at this?
The locals, however, had told us that the InselAir pilots loved to mess with the “fence riders”. With their MD-80 aircraft and its high, centrally mounted engines near the tail, they had all the right equipment to put on a show for folks. The locals also informed us that those pilots took special pride in seeing just how far into the ocean those engines could toss hats, chairs, coolers, and beach balls, not to mention the scampering beach-goers themselves. Our local tipster said, “if you see the pilot wave, you better hang on.”
As the InselAir MD-80 approached, sure enough: we saw a hand come out the window and wave to us.
I took my spot at the top of the fence. As I looked up, I was staring down the barrel of a pair of jet engines. The pilots hit the thrust levers, and we knew things were different this time. This one was scary. I had repeated solid jolts of hot air that felt as strong as a forceful shove to the chest. I fought back by holding myself with all of my strength. I took a brief risk by letting go with one hand long enough to wrap that arm around the barbed wire fence across the top. I’m glad I did.
In a few seconds it was over. Wow; what a ride. And I have the fence scars to show off, too. I wore a permanent smile on my sandblasted face back to the cruise ship. What a great experience!
If you go, I recommend ponying up for the rented beach gear from Sunset Bar and Grill. Also, I’d recommend taking a trip up to the buildings near the north end of the beach where you could potentially get some shots of aircraft from the side as they land.
Lastly, if time permits, there should be some great shots possible away from the beach on the east end of the runway, where departing aircraft have to make some pretty significant banking to avoid the looming mountains nearby.