10 January 2017

Have you heard of Maho Beach? Well, if you are an aviation enthusiast – the so-called avgeek – you should have. Ever since I saw photos from the Maho Beach, I knew that one day I would end up there, and now I can happily tick it off my avgeek’s to do list.

The beach is placed adjacent to one end of the runway of Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM for short, after its IATA code) on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, which is divided between France and the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

What’s so special about the beach is that it’s so close to the end of the runway that you can almost touch the aircraft landing or departing from it while enjoying your drink or chilling in the Caribbean Sea.


Jet Blue Boeing 737 roaming above my head as it prepares to land at SXM

It can get even more thrilling than that! If you’re brave enough to disregard the placards placed on the airport fence that warn you about a possibility of severe bodily injury or death, you can also stand directly behind a taking off aircraft; roughly 50 meters behind its jet engines, to be more precise. The jet blast produced by the engines can literally blow you off to the sea and make sure you have sand in literally every part of your body.


Ready for a grill?

As a matter of fact, a kind of bond has developed between pilots and the crowd at the Maho Beach, to the degree that many pilots intentionally rev their engines at full power at standstill before take – off or land as low as possible over people’s heads. I’ve also spotted some aircraft flashing their landing lights in a greeting gesture while approaching the runway.

There are roughly 100 scheduled commercial flights daily between 8 am and 7pm (both arrivals and departures). Most of this traffic comes from local commuter airlines such as St Barth Commuter, Anguilla Air and Windward Islands Airways operating Cessna 208B Caravans, Britten Norman Islanders and Twin Otter aircraft.


Cessna 208 Caravan on approach to SXM on a stormy afternoon

However, roughly 20 of these flights are from international airlines such as Copa Airlines, Insel Air, Delta, KLM, Air France, American Airlines, Jet Blue, United Airlines, West Jet, etc, as well as some international cargo operators.

The most popular aircraft operated by these companies are MD-83s, Boeing 727, Boeing 737, Boeing 757, and Airbus 330 and 340 and these are the most awaited by jet enthusiast, as their deafening take-offs and landings are the most spectacular.

Until October 2016 the largest aircraft to land at the SXM was the Boeing 747-400 from KLM, which due to phasing out of the type has now been replaced by Airbus A330. This makes currently the Air France’s four engine A340-300 the largest commercial airliner landing at St Marten, connecting it daily to Paris Charles De Gaulle.


Air France Airbus A340-300 on short finals to SXM

In fact the KLM and Air France daily flights are the only direct services linking SXM with Europe – Amsterdam and Paris respectively.

Finally, for the bizjet lovers, on top of all the scheduled commercial traffic, the airport sucks in a continuous stream of great variety of light and medium business aircraft…Cessnas, Gulfstreams, Learjets, Bombardiers…you name it!


Bombardier Challenger 300 on short finals to SXM

If you want to combine aircraft spotting with chilling at the beach you can head to one of the two beach bars located at the opposite ends of the Maho, the more chic Sunset Bar and Grill or the more laid back Driftwood Boat Bar, each of them with a great, although a bit more distant angle at the landing aircraft, and both offering beach loungers for rent.

When you’re at Sunset Bar and Grill don’t miss the famous surfboard with the daily schedule for arriving heavy jets, you’ll notice that the busiest time for heavy metal is between 2 and 4 pm with the landmark Air France jet-blast-sand-storm-generating departure just before 5pm.

Be sure to check the arrival times – the old school way

Otherwise download the Flightradar 24 or a similar app on your smartphone. It will give you the most precise picture of the arriving traffic and let know exactly how much time you have for chilling with your ice cold Carib bear before grabbing your GoPro and a Canon and heading for that perfect shot.

Remember though that while you’re at the Maho Beach there’s another aviation enthusiast gem waiting for you just a few miles away which I will explore with you in my next post.


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