The day I disrupted Air Traffic in St. Barth’s


Last week I was the guest of the St. Martin Airport Authority, meeting with executives there and exploring the aviation community in the region. As part of that experience Winair, the local Flag Carrier, took our group over to St. Barth’s for the day. Part of that was to experience the exceptional landing at St. Barth’s – a steep, nose-down approach to a short runway with a hill at one end and a beach at the other – and part was to meet the people who manage ATC at the smaller airport and learn how they all work together to manage hundreds of daily flights in an area which seems to have less capacity than it consumes. It was fascinating in many ways and one of my best birthdays ever. Especially the part where I had a hand in disrupting air traffic arriving in St. Barth’s.

Looking down on the runway at St Barth's
Looking down on the runway at St Barth’s. Turns out they really mean it when they say it is a restricted area.

As part of our tour we stopped at the traffic circle atop the hill just short of RWY 10. The hill is about 140 feet above the runway and is cut between two larger hills; the winds swirl and getting a plane over the top of the hill and then down on to the runway is no trivial task. Special training is required for pilots making the approach and for Winair, the largest carrier flying into SBH, only Captains are qualified for the flight; First Officers are not rated to make that landing.

For us it was mostly just sitting atop the hill and watching while also trying to not get hit by the cars and trucks passing directly behind us on the road. Which is why a few of us set up base just inside the fence/guard rail alongside the road. We felt much safer there but it turns out that was not such a good idea.

We caught a glimpse of the next inbound flight but something was amiss. It was higher than the previous arrivals and not lined up on the runway. Was it just passing over en route to another airport? Probably not; there’s not much else out that way. It passed the airport and banked left, starting to circle the field. But why was it circling? And then the Gendarmarie showed up and we learned the answer to that question: It was us.

Looking down on the runway as we left St. Barth's.
Looking down on the runway as we left St. Barth’s.

Turns out that our choice of seats, just inside the guard rail, put us on the airport grounds and directly under the approach path. Seems that’s not permitted. We were yelled at a bit in French and then in English. In both languages the message was quite clear. And so we climbed back over the guard rail and took our position between it and the road. A few moments later we were treated to the St. Barth Commuter Airlines Cessna 208B Grand Caravan passing (very) low overhead.

The fence line and buoys at the western end of the runway in St Barth's.
A Cessna Caravan passing low over our heads on approach into St. Barth’s.

Also of interest is that the far end of the field has a similar fence line. And, because it directly abuts the beach, a buoy line as well. Swimming inside the markers can cause a similar disruption in air traffic. Later in the tour we were invited inside the control tower where we learned that they also have video cameras monitoring those areas so they know when idiots like us cross into the restricted areas.

The fence line and buoys at the western end of the runway in St Barth's.
The fence line and buoys at the western end of the runway in St Barth’s.

Definitely a fun place to visit (though ridiculously expensive to stay). Just make sure you don’t cross in to the restricted areas around the airport. They take that seriously even if the fences don’t look like much.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

3 Comments

  1. I used to go to St. Barths in Feb every year in the 70s. Before it became the expensive place it is today. The first several times, the airport was a shed and immigration was a gendarme standing by a 55 gal oil drum. For a long time there was the remains of a plane the pilot of which had decided not to make the landing from the hill side, but tried to land from the sea. Couldn’t stop before the foot of the hill. It is a scary landing.

    We stayed at Baie de Flamands in a 60s style motel building. We had the entire beach to ourselves. When we needed more solitude, we could hike to Columbier through some Rockefellar holdings. Too expensive now, I’m afraid.

  2. WOW what a great video and thanks so much for sharing. Brings back my landing in St Thomas in 1970 in a Pan Am 727 on a 4900 ft runway (100 feet over minimum).

    I hope you have been to Saba where they call their airport the “aircraft carrier” since the runway is only 1300 feet.

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