Ah, to be on a beach in the Caribbean. The sun. The sand. The clear blue waters. The roar of airplanes. The smell of engine fuel. The danger of jet blasts.
There can be a fine line between a travel experience that’s cool and one that is perilous. At Mahó beach, on the Dutch side of the island of St. Maarten’s, that line is about 12 meters wide. That’s the distance between the vacationers on the beach and the start of the main runway at Princess Juliana International Airport.
There are, of course, many airports with parks and observation decks close to their runways. Hamburg has a fantastic coffee shop with airport views. In Dubai, the JW Marriott Hotel features superb views from their runway-facing rooms. Yet no other airport has plane spotting opportunities quite like Mahó beach‡. A rare combination of four factors are at work:
• The short runway, hemmed in by the beach on one side and the mountains on the other, forces landing planes to touch down on the tarmac as soon as possible.
• Because of said short runway, and also because of the crosswinds, planes approach the airport at a lower altitude than is typical.
• There’s a public beach at the most active end of the airport’s most active runway. Plus, while most airports have a buffer zone (often a grass field) between the runway and the outer security barrier, there’s virtually no such buffer at Princess Juliana.
• Being St. Maarten’s main airport, huge airplanes (including Boeing 747s) takeoff and land here.
Landing airplanes—especially the larger ones—can fly in as low as 10 meters (32 feet) above people’s heads.
When a 747 lands at the airport, its wheels might touch down while the tail end of the plane is still above the people watching at the fence!
It all seems impossibly close. Photos of landing planes look like they’ve been manipulated in PhotoShop. That, or you’d think those photos are of a landing that’s gone wrong. In fact, planes routinely land on St. Maarten like this.
Airport fence surfing
As exciting as it is watching planes arrive, experiencing a departure can be even more thrilling/harrowing. Planes typically take off from the far end of runway number 10 with their engines facing Mahó Beach. When they power up for take off, the jet engines of the larger planes can shoot out warm air at over 160 kh/h (100 mph)! Daring onlookers watch while “fence surfing”—grabbing onto the fence immediately behind the airplane and holding on for dear life. (Check out the video, below).
Fence surfing is an arguably better alternative than remaining on the beach directly behind the airplane. There, the jet blast whips up the sand, creating a miniature version of the sort of storm you’d expect to only find in the Sahara. If you find yourself here during a take off, lose your eyes—and mouth—tightly.
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Or, apply some caution and watch the plane take offs and landings from a nearby safer distance. You’ll still be treated to an incredible sight, just without all the (small but not non-existent) risk of injury and death.
Most large aircraft arrive and depart around mid-morning and mid-late afternoon. Bring your camera. And your health insurance.
‡ One could argue that Skiathos in Greece offers a similar experience, but the planes that use that airport aren’t nearly as large.
Video and Photos Planes Landing at St. Maarten
Video and Photos Planes Taking off From St. Maarten
Cut to around the one minute mark for best part of this video:
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Have you been to Maho beach? Would you go fence surfing if you had the chance? Blow us away with your comment, below: