Take a Flight to St. Barth, Saba? You Are In For a Quite a Ride

A Winair DHC-6-300 Twin Otter makes its usual approach into St. Barths. Courtesy Alain Duzant

A Winair DHC-6-300 Twin Otter makes its usual approach into St. Barths. Courtesy Alain Duzant

By Kathryn B. Creedy

An AvGeek’s a trip to St. Maarten is not complete without the experience of flying to St. Barth and Saba but don’t get in the way of the landing aircraft or, at least at St. Barth, the gendarmerie will be on you in a flash. More on that later.

St. Maarten is most assuredly one of the greatest #AvGeek spots on earth as illustrated by my recent report for Beachcombers Chronicles. St. Maarten is, indeed, a unique beach adventure and that is what Beachcombers Chronicles is all about. The aircraft thundering into Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) come within a hair’s breadth of sunbathers on Maho Beach. Few places in the world offer a spectacle of aircraft in flight so close it seems as if you could reach up and touch their dangling landing gear. And SXM has Sunset Beach Bar where aviation geeks and non-geeks alike gather to watch the miracle of flight on this 37-mile stretch of paradise.

Most shots of aircraft landing at SXM are taken over Maho Bay. This is KLM 747 taking off from SXM. Courtesy of Alain Duzant

Most shots of aircraft landing at SXM are taken over Maho Bay. This is KLM 747 taking off from SXM. Courtesy of Alain Duzant.

But it is the operations at St. Barth and Saba that really set an AvGeek’s heart aflutter. St. Barth was featured in the History Channel’s Most Extreme Airports, which named it the third most dangerous airport in the world. St. Maarten, known as the gateway to the Caribbean, came in fourth in the program which cited the sharp incline on takeoff and right turn necessary to avoid the 2,400-foot (800-meter) mountains to the east of the runway. Oh, and of course, it cited the crazy fence surfers who hang on to the fence surrounding the airport as thousands of pounds of thrust from departing jet aircraft literally blow them away.

Saba didn’t make the History Channel’s list but has made other challenging airport lists and rightly so. Saba has been correctly described as trying to land on an aircraft carrier because it has 60-foot drops at either end of the runway with Cove Bay on one end and the sparkling waters of the Caribbean on the other. However, it has a healthy 1,300-foot length, four times that of an aircraft carrier and it doesn’t pitch and roll as aircraft carriers do.

It is little wonder the two airports take special training and the controllers at St. Barth have a photo album of those who went nose over in the sand or ended up in the clear blue waters of the Baie de St. Jean. Local aviators know that the incidents result from pilots not heeding the warnings about how challenging the airport is. One jet even attempted the landing and didn’t make it. Now, that was a cocky pilot who didn’t know or care that St. Barth is strictly a piston and turboprop airport. Despite the challenges and accidents, there have been no fatalities, a testament to the care and skill of the pilots that regularly serve the island.

For unsuspecting passengers and veteran aviators alike, the St. Barth’s approach is a thrill. We jostled our way on board hoping to sit in the front of the Winair Twin Otter for a bird’s eye view of the flight and landing through the cockpit window. Little did we know that at both Saba and St. Barth, the best place to sit is in the back for a far more dramatic feeling of the steep angle on approach. But we were as excited as kids on Christmas morning and wanted to get the best shots. Oh, well, always leave something for next time.

Our group was about a dozen aviation and travel reporters each wanting the best view for the approach at St. Barth and doing heaven knows what to the center of gravity. Courtesy Alain Duzant.

Our group was about a dozen aviation and travel reporters each wanting the best view for the approach at St. Barth. Courtesy Alain Duzant.

Group Selfie. Crazy AvGeeks from the other angle. Courtesy Adam Twidell

Group Selfie. Crazy AvGeeks from the other angle. Courtesy Adam Twidell.

Wandering Aramean Blogger Seth Miller, mounted his GoPro just behind the first officer while PrivateFly’s Adam Twidell kept his smartphone camera rolling throughout the flight. The rest of us were crowded behind them in the unpressurized, un-air conditioned aircraft doing heaven knows what to the center of gravity. We knew we were in for something special because SXM Air Traffic Control Supervisor Duncan van Heyningen described the approach during briefings chuckling as he explained how difficult it was.

SXM Air Traffic Control Supervisor Duncan van Heyningen briefed us that we were in for a great ride in describing the approach at St. Barths.

SXM Air Traffic Control Supervisor Duncan van Heyningen briefed us that we were in for a great ride in describing the approach at St. Barths. Photo by Kathryn B. Creedy.

None of us, however, expected a 10-degree, nose-down attitude as we approached. The left wing seemed to barely skim the mountain before we dropped on to the runway. For Captain Carlyle Dubline and First Officer Alexander Spencer, however, it was just another day at the office.

The Winair Twin Otter skims over the heads of assembled AvGeeks trying to get the best shot of this absurd approach.

The Winair Twin Otter skims over the heads of assembled AvGeeks trying to get the best shot of this absurd approach. Courtesy Alain Duzant.

Aircraft have to dodge traffic on the traffic circle atop the gap between the two mountains pilots have to thread their way through. Traffic included huge boats and construction cranes sticking well into the sky.

Aircraft have to dodge traffic on the traffic circle atop the gap between the two mountains through which pilots have to thread their way. Traffic included huge boats and construction cranes sticking well into the sky. Courtesy Alain Duzant.

Aircraft have to navigate their way down a steep slope as they land at St. Barths. The aircraft on final is Winair's Twin Otter while the Tradewind aircraft in the foreground is a Pilatus PC 12. Photo by Kathryn B. Creedy

Aircraft have to navigate their way down a steep slope as they land at St. Barths. The aircraft on final is Winair’s Twin Otter while the Tradewind aircraft in the foreground is a Pilatus PC 12. Photo by Kathryn B. Creedy.

Local aviators know that it takes good hand-eye coordination as well as very good stick and rudder skills. Operations can only be done in VFR conditions. The aircraft used at these airfields may not have the sophisticated automation of larger and newer aircraft but these are airports where you wouldn’t want automation anyway.

“Pilots need a separate certification for Saba and St. Barth’s,” Winair Chief Pilot Jeff Oliver told Winging It. “Certification calls for six landings to be qualified at St. Barth’s and a minimum of three at Saba. But our training exceeds those minimums.”

Winair Chief Pilot Jeff Oliver explains the tricky landings at St. Barth and Saba. Photo by Helena de Bekker

Winair Chief Pilot Jeff Oliver explains the tricky landings at St. Barth and Saba and what it takes for a pilot to get certified to land at these two difficult destinations. Photo by Helena de Bekker.

The transition from first officer to captain at Winair typically takes between three and three and a half years, according to Oliver. However, once they transition to the left seat, they need a minimum of 100 hours as pilot in command before they can begin training for landings at Saba and St. Barth. Considering Winair flights are between 12 and 35 minutes that is a lot of flying time for these pilots but with a pilot corps between 32 and 36 and 18,000 flights annually we could say that time flies.

The airport is a tiny gateway to a posh tropical island served by Winanir, St. Barth Commuter and Tradewinds. Photo by Kathryn B. Creedy

The St. Barth airport is a tiny gateway to a posh tropical island. Photo by Kathryn B. Creedy.

St. Barth Gustaf III Airport (SBH) runway is 2,133 feet (650 meters). Commercial services includes Winair’s Twin Otters, St. Barth Commuter’s Cessna Caravans and Britten Norman Islanders as well as Tradewind’s Pilatus PC 12.

While it is a short runway, it is the approach that is the challenge. Aircraft are required to thread the needle through a gap in a mountain. On top of that gap is an extraordinarily busy traffic circle and approaching aircraft come excruciatingly close to the traffic below before abruptly dropping down a slope to the airfield.

Winair Twin Otter prepares for landing with a dramatic nose dive into the airport. Courtesy of Chris Kjelgaard

Winair Twin Otter prepares for landing with a dramatic nose dive into the airport. Courtesy of Chris Kjelgaard.

In fact, while the terrestrial traffic dodged our excited party standing atop that gap, one of the St. Barth Commuter pilots called in an alarm to the control tower about some silly group that was interfering with air traffic and ignoring the warning signs restricting the areas on which we could stand. A few minutes later, the gendarmerie arrived scolding us, moving us away from the flight path. Meanwhile, the pilot had gone around and only after we were cleared did he attempt the landing coming in just feet over our heads.

It is not as if we weren't warned that we were violating the approach air space as we scrambled around the hill and traffic circle positioning to get the best shot. We were soon dispersed by the gendarmerie. Photo by Kathryn B. Creedy

It is not as if we weren’t warned that we were violating the approach air space as we scrambled around the hill and traffic circle positioning to get the best shot. We were soon dispersed by the gendarmerie. That’s Wandering Aramean Seth Miller in the photo. Photo by Kathryn B. Creedy.

The runway at Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (SAB) on Saba is the shortest commercial runway in the world at 1,312 feet (396 meters) and only 65 feet wide. It is flanked by a mountain on one side and sea on the other. Operations are restricted to the Twin Otter or the Britten Norman Islanders.

Saba has 60-foot drops at either end of the 1300-foot runway and it takes a lot of special training to navigate the windy, mountain-bound approach. Photo by Kathryn B. Creedy

Saba has 60-foot drops at either end of the 1300-foot runway and it takes a lot of special training to navigate the windy, mountain-bound approach. Photo by Kathryn B. Creedy.

“Saba used to be more challenging,” said Winair Chief Pilot Jeff Oliver, “before the airport blasted away at some of the mountain. There is still very little room for error, particularly if the pilot has to go-around, but that’s a major part of the training. It is still challenging at times since you may get sudden wind direction changes. When the winds are from the north, runway 30 for departure is only permitted when the wind direction is within 30 degrees of the runway direction, with a minimum wind speed of 15 knots. However, these conditions pose another problem because they tend to push you further towards the mountain particularly on a go-around. It also has an uphill slope of three degrees, which helps with landing. Clearing away part of that hill makes it more relaxing.”

Well, relaxing after a fashion. When approaching runway 12, the approach requires a flight straight at the mountain before the pilot makes a sharp left turn to line up for approach and landing.

St. Maarten can rightly be described as an aviation geek’s paradise but if you want more than the world’s best plane spotting venue, you must experience St. Barth and Saba. As for Saba, we had no time for anything except a quick turnaround, which astonished the customs and immigration official that approved our entry into and exit from the island in one swift maneuver. With the too-short visits to these wonderful islands, I look forward to exploring them at length in the future.

Oliver summed up the experience with a chuckle. “People all over the world decide to make the Caribbean a destination,” he said, adding “They are guaranteed to like it because of where we fly. But it’s the landings that are worth the price of the ticket alone.”

So, I guess you could say I'm a Winair fan, holding a Winair fan. The Twin Otter is unpressurized and un-airconditioned so it was definitely appreciated.

So, I guess you could say I’m a Winair fan, holding a Winair fan. The Twin Otter is unpressurized and un-air conditioned so it was definitely appreciated.

St. Barth is very aviation minded. So much so, it has fantastical animals surrounding its government building. This, of course is my favorite. Can you see the bi-plane wings on the body? As for me, I love anything in an aviator's helmet and goggles! Photo by Kathryn. B. Creedy

St. Barth is very aviation minded. So much so, it has fantastical animals surrounding its government building. This, of course was my favorite. Can you see the bi-plane wings on the body? As for me, I love anything in an aviator’s helmet and goggles! Photo by Kathryn. B. Creedy

As Hurricane Danny Approaches Island Airports Prepare for Their Critical Mission

By Kathryn B. Creedy

Even though Hurricane Danny is expected to weaken to a tropical storm before hitting the Caribbean, airports in the region are busy putting their sophisticated disaster plans to work, prioritizing on post-storm recovery. St. Maarten Princess Juliana Airport (SXM) is a good example and it has been successful in restoring air service capability within 24 hours.

When disasters loom on small islands, generally the news is all about the crush at the airport as tourists scramble to get out before it hits. Few know about the back story – what goes into getting the airport back in service as quickly as possible and it all comes down to advance planning and being pro-active.

Hurricane Danny's trajectory has Caribbean airports preparing. Source: Red dots are hurricane strength. Yellow are tropical storm strength.

Hurricane Danny’s trajectory has Caribbean airports preparing. Source: Red dots are hurricane strength. Yellow are tropical storm strength.

Larry Donker, director of operations at SXM airport indicated that disaster planning starts before the season even hits. “We have to be prepared early because the airport is critical infrastructure to connect us to the rest of the world,” he said. “This pro-active approach ensures maximum preparedness.”

Hurricane Danny is set to hit the islands on Sunday. Source: NOAA

Hurricane Danny is set to hit the islands on Sunday. Source: NOAA

The critical role the Port Au Prince airport played in relief missions was aptly illustrated after the fatal Haitian earthquake, but hurricanes are an annual threat for which airports like St. Maarten must prepare. Having been through numerous blows in the past 20 years, SXM knows how important recovery is.

“Building standards have advanced substantially, making hotels, businesses and residences much stronger in withstanding hurricane winds so evacuation is not as necessary as it once was,” said Donker at a recent briefing in the Air Traffic facility at SXM. “What we are more concerned with is getting the airport back up and running as quickly as possible and we know we can do it within 24 hours. You have to remember that aviation is critical to national and economic survival following a disaster. It is essential for receiving and sending aid and it will determine the outcome of the recovery.”

In addition to being critical infrastructure for aid, airports offer a convenient logistics hub, a secure area and a helicopter base for rescue operations.

On the cusp of the most critical part of the 2015 Hurricane season, SXM has seven hurricanes and tropical storms in its rear-view mirror from which to take lessons, the worst of which was Luis in 1995 and Lenny in 1999, making SXM expert in hurricane preparedness.

St. Maarten has three phases to its disaster plan starting with coordination with local disaster management authorities in advance of an impending storm likely to affect the island. Phase II starts within 24 hours of the storm hitting and Phase III, of course, is the aftermath.

Phase I and II can effectively be called preparing and battening down the hatches, removing any loose infrastructure and debris from roofs and other airport property, cleaning out drains and ditches, storage of equipment such as maintenance vehicles, airline containers and baggage carts as well as aircraft. This is all part of the overall securing of the property and accompanies notifying airport stakeholders of the impending emergency.

Securing the airport covers items that one may not think of such as the chiller facilities, ensuring all pumps and generators are functional and fuel tanks are full. In addition, it also means securing the obvious – jet bridges and airside floodlights and other infrastructure that could be damaged. Each department has its own checklist to secure buildings and the airport itself including computer equipment and office space.

Also key is communication and flight coordination with airlines, aircraft owners and key media to ensure efficient operations as well as notification that the disaster plan is in effect.

There comes a point, though, when all is secure and airport air traffic services must be suspended. Employees are then released to tend to preparation of their personal property. However, a core team of airport and air traffic services personnel remain to weather the storm and to prepare for re-opening. Personnel volunteer to remain at the airport and are chosen based on their relevant skills and experience.

After the storm, there is an equally intricate plan to get the airport back in operation, including ensuring the accessibility of the airport from surrounding roads. Personnel immediately start the inspection of the airfield and facility, damage assessment and documentation, and prepare to resume operations. Airports place a priority on runway cleanup, fencing security, equipment assessment and a detailed chain of reporting to the airport director to determine when the airport can be re-opened.

Once all is in place, the airport director can then open the airport prioritizing on disaster recovery missions before opening it up to normal aircraft operations.

Can new business aviation models fill in the void left by regional restructuring?

U.S. mainlines and regionals restructuring has left many points that were once the bread and butter of the regional airline industry without service. In Part 3 of my series for Centre for Aviation, I discuss whether or not new shuttles and air taxi models can help small communities regain air service.

I would love to start a discussion on this. Here is part 3 of my CAPA series. Regional Airline Restructuring Part 3: Will new business aviation models win premium air travellers?

http://centreforaviation.com/analysis/regional-airline-restructuring-part-3-will-new-business-aviation-models-win-premium-air-travellers-234559

Battle for Seattle — Airline Economics

The subhead for this blog is Unconventional Wisdom About Aviation and the article I wrote for Airline Economics magazine certainly qualifies. It questions Delta’s moves in Seattle and suggests both will win as Alaska is a survivor. It also notes how much leadership Alaska has in the industry which, frankly, is very under-reported. I’ve been following the airline for decades and Alaska was the genesis of the industry transformation that occurred in the last decade. I would love to start a conversation around this.

So, click on the link and go to the MARCH/APRIL issue (second one down) and then flip to page 40 and engage in the conversation. Cheers — Kathryn

Abolish Lanyard-Style Name Tags with Cool Airplane Pin

Okay, I’ve just returned from a conference where they offered the typical lanyard-style name tag that ends up dropping down to the belly. I don’t know about you but that makes it hard to read, not to mention a little awkward when you bend over to get a better look. During another conference a friend of mine (thanks Cassandra) turned me on to a great little product that solves the problem and I thought I’d share it with my readers.

It is an eyeglass holder from AviationJewelry.com. Just pin your name tag to this pin and problem solved. Your name is off the belly and easily readable — including the fine print.

Here’s what I bought: http://aviationjewelry.com/store/eye-glass-holders/eye-glass-holder-gold-tone/cp209g/

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There’s also lots of other cool jewelry for men and women on the site.

Let’s start a trend!