I came to Saint Martin first in 2010, for therapeutic reasons. Freshly furloughed from flying, hardly thawing between shifts working overnight maintenance on the planes I used to fly, the lady I was dating suggested some warm salt air might help. She wasn’t wrong. We spent a long weekend enjoying beautiful water, good company. A full afternoon sitting on Maho Beach was the best part of all.
For anyone unfamiliar, Saint Martin’s airport is SXM, Princess Julianna International Airport, whose runway backs up to Maho Beach, where the Sunset Bar and Grill lubricates patrons who come for the view. We grabbed a cold drink and wandered onto the beach, where interisland turboprops came and went, opening acts before the heavy metal headliners took the stage. A big Delta jet came in just over our heads, seemingly so close one could touch the main wheels as they passed. It was the closest I’d came to a passenger jet in flight without being inside the thing. The headline act went right on schedule as a KLM 747 taxied out. Beachgoers thronged to the fence, clinging to the chain-link wire as all four engines spooled up. I really did think myself positioned safely outboard of the jet blast, but I was mistaken. As the breeze turned into a sandblasting, I shielded my face with a cheap digital camera, capturing the queen’s departure while praying I wouldn’t lose an eye or get tumbled into the nearby curb. It was loud, painful, and amazing.
Nine years later, I upgraded to a bigger airline, and traded my CRJ for an Airbus. And while I wasn’t bidding trips specifically for cities, I did keep an otherwise unattractive trip just because of one city on the pairing. The computer had let down its guard. I had a hot date with Princess Juliana.
I didn’t actually land in Saint Martin. I deadheaded down as a passenger to operate the flight back. When I checked in, a wink, a smile and a promise to behave netted me a window seat back at 25F. This positioning was deliberate: I wanted to see the spot of beach where I’d stood almost a decade ago. As we flew south, my neighbor for the flight, a dentist from Boston, grilled me with all sorts of questions. What’s it like landing there? Fun. Can you see the people watching you? Yes. How many times have you been? Cough, mumble, cough, cough, cough. Once.
Technically, I’d been once, as a passenger, and the day after my Airbus type checkride, I did an international simulator training session that had me doing V1 cuts at SXM. Surely that had to count for something.
As we got lower and lower, I set up for a long burst of pictures on my phone as we crossed the beach. I posted the best picture online as we taxied to the parking spot.
The customers left for their vacations, and I settled in up front. We had an hour and a half until departure. While workers cleaned the cabin, the captain and I discussed the departure. As dramatic as the arrival is into this place, the departure is a lot more threatening. There’s a big mountain right off the runway, and one more off to the south. There are lights along the ridges to help identify the threats. Basically, we were looking at a flaps 3 takeoff (flaps 4 is full flaps for reference) and once airborne, we’d be banking hard right to shoot the gap between the hills. In fact, we’re commanded to hand fly this departure in the event of engine failure, because the Airbus won’t bank steeply enough to make the turn on its own. We briefed the lasting effect of Hurricane Irma, how that the ATIS still was off the air. “They’re still hurting, but at least we can get the tourists down here to finance the rebuild,” the captain said.
Then, we waited. In an idle moment, I pulled up the Maho Beach webcam and saw us parked as it panned across the airport. A little lump formed in my throat as it dawned that I’d made it to the other side of the fence. From the time I was a teenager, I’d marveled at the beauty of images captured down here. I’d clung to the fence for an afternoon, with dual hopes – getting recalled to a flying job first, and one day operating a flight through here.
Suddenly it was time to go. The station agent handed us our final paperwork, I ran the weight and balance numbers, and we closed the doors.
I called the frequency specified 10 minutes prior to our pushback, per the company’s guidance, to pick up our clearance. Silence. Called again. Silence. “Oh, hey,” the captain laughed, “That frequency is down. They’d put it on the ATIS, if it worked.”
I flipped over to tower’s frequency, where it was pure mayhem. A helicopter was passing over the approach end of the runway. A Baron was on short final, a Twin Otter was close behind on base. A Citation X was holding short at the end, itching to go. I’ve heard busier frequencies, but usually in places like Chicago or New York. Most islands we serve are sleepy outposts; here, it took several minutes for me to get a call in for our clearance. We spun in the assigned heading, modified the departure per the clearance, and then we pushed back to join the party already in progress.
We lit both engines and did all our checks before we moved. Between the busy airport, narrow taxiways and my lack of familiarity we figured that having both sets of eyes up and out the window for taxi was the best plan. Holding short of the runway, we waited for an arrival or two. As we waited, the crowd at the fence multiplied.
Flying with an audience is a new concept for me. I grew up on the airshow circuit, but never as a pilot. The folks weren’t there to see me fly. I do remember once running into someone whose house was near the aerobatic box I used to frequent, and in conversation, they figured out it was me they’d been watching. In my mind, it’d always been me, machine and sky. I’d never really thought about anyone on the ground enjoying watching me.
But as we taxied into position, folks clung to the fence with one hand, and waved with the other. Occasionally while flying, I pick out a planespotter while we’re on approach, hunkered with cameras and scanners, capturing our coming and going. But this was a rowdy, scantily-clad party of folks watching us leave. “Sterile Cockpit” rules prohibit extraneous conversation or activities from the time we pull chocks at the gate until we climb through 10,000 feet. I’ve heard horror stories of inspectors busting pilots for something so innocuous as taking a sip of their coffee while climbing though 8,000 feet on autopilot. So, I wasn’t waving as we turned to line up on the runway. I was shielding my eyes from a nasty glare. I promise.
We pushed the power up to the takeoff detent, released the brakes and left Maho Beach in a swirl of sand, ruffled beach towels and hopefully some pleased avgeeks who came for a show. As we banked over into the southward turn between peaks, Tower handed us off to departure and I struggled to form some of the words. I’d ticked off another bucket list item, and I’d done it on someone else’s dime.
By the time we landed in a much colder Boston, an old coworker had tagged himself in my picture. I laughed at the small world moment and prodded him to post the picture he must have gotten of us. He didn’t disappoint. Two pilots, shooting pictures of each other without even realizing it at the time. Anywhere else in the world, I’d call that a coincidence. In Saint Martin, though, it’s just another day at the beach.