Close encounters of the plane kind

December 15, 2011 • 2:08 pm

Take a look at this photo. It looks Photoshopped, no?

It isn’t: it’s a plane landing at Princess Juliana National Airport on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten.  The approach to Runway 10 at the airstrip takes the plane low over Maho Beach, a famous site for planespotters. In fact, local cafes are said to cater to these thrillseekers by posting the daily timetable of takeoffs and landings

The low approach is required by the short runway. If you still don’t believe the photo, here’s a video of a Boeing 747 landing on Runway 10:

Planespotters get so close to the planes landing and taking off that this sign has been placed nearby:

Surprisingly, there’s never been an accident here: a testimony to the skill of pilots.

There’s a whole slew of scary photos of planes landing on St. Maarten. Knock yourselves out; here’s one more—another 747.

Rarely can you get this close to a landing plane. I approximated this experience when working on the island of São Tomé, as there were no fences around the airstrip and I’d sneak onto the shore by the end of the runway; but the planes came in higher.  Seeing planes so close is reason enough to go to St. Maarten.

I’m sure that at least one reader has landed and taken off from this strip. Weigh in if you have.

54 thoughts on “Close encounters of the plane kind

  1. I’ve been to St. Maarten, but I don’t remember seeing a plane land so close. Chances are I was on a plane landing like this, and just didn’t realize how close the plane came to the ground!

  2. Very cool!! I used to sleep on airport green spaces in front of runways when visiting cities back in the days when I couldn’t afford hotels….similar views!!! Probably impossible nowadays.

  3. In a related scenario, I have both landed at the old Kai Tak airport in a 747 and have looked up at them landing there. You will not realize how huge these planes are until you see one snaking its way between high rise apartment buildings. While landing, I noticed a woman setting the table for dinner–she had white and blue dishes. I couldn’t quite make out what she was serving for dinner though. Probably some rice was involved.

    1. I too have vivid memories of landing at the old Kai Tak – we banked sharp one way, and then the other, and then back again as we flew among the high-rises of Kowloon. What was more scary was that it was on a Chinese 747 and the pilots were making the same wages as the baggage handlers 🙂

      1. Yes, but they had normal pilot training. That’s Communism. Everyone makes the same money because everyone is equal. Well, except for intelligence, motivation and education, etc., of course.

  4. I love how there’s a puff of tire smoke from the main gear right at the runway threshold. Fantastic job of maximizing the useable runway. I saw St Maartens on The World’s Top Ten Most Dangerous Runways (or some such) a year or two ago. This and the old Hong Kong airport that bigjohn mentions were the most dramatic, as most of the others were too small for 747s.

    1. That’s cutting it awfully close, though, isn’t it?

      It’s too bad there wasn’t a strip of dusty dirt before the edge of the runway or else you’d probably get to see the wingtip vortices aka wake turbulence. That can be pretty dramatic, too…and I imagine it’d be even more dramatic for the super heavy airliners.


      1. It looks much closer that it really is; the aircraft is completely under control. I guarantee the pilot is completely focused on the touch down spot and doesn’t even see the fence. Normally the touch down zone is the first 1/3 of the runway.

        What I remember about short field landing technique is that you put your wheels on the ground as early as you possibly can, as close to a stall as you can (plus a margin of error). I imagine that it’s quite different in a 747 than in a Cessna, but I guarantee you that pilot learned the technique in a single-engine prop plane. You need a hell of a lot of experience before you become a 747 captain.

        Navy and Marine guys have to hit a moving postage stamp all the time when landing. A nice stable approach in a big 747 with a runway that stays in one place has got to be a piece of cake by comparison.

        1. Navy and Marine guys have to hit a moving postage stamp all the time when landing.

          My pappy had to hit an extra small stamp – one of the Independence class small carriers built in WWII. Originally ordered as Cleveland class cruisers, they were converted to carriers while still under construction, when the importance of air power was realized.

  5. ps. The landing at Chicago Midway is not that much different. Almost “tick” a fence and then wheels down. They just don’t let the public get quite as close. Also, most of the traffic is 737s (runways can’t land much longer) so it’s not as impressive as a 747 or Airbus dropping in.

  6. I have been on that beach and walked down that road. I have seen planes close (50-100 feet) but not quite that close.

    The all nude beach is on the other (French) side of the island if you REALLY want to get an eye popping experience, but the better restaurants are on the Dutch side.

  7. I’ve been to St. Maarten and to the beach near the airport. Landing planes do indeed come in really low although these two photos seem to be of planes that were exceptionally low, at least compared to what I remember.

  8. Transport category aircraft approaching to land typically follow an ILS navigation signal that provides precise flight path control, both vertical and horizontal, which gets more precise the closer one gets to the runway. As long as the aircraft gets stabilized on the flight path far from the runway, it’s not that hard to fly the path all the way down to the runway.

    As long as the aircraft has the proper airspeed on this flight path, the aircraft will float to a pretty predictable location once the flare is begun.

    I fly propeller airplanes and we have an advantage over jets; if we start to land short, we can give a squirt of power to float a few more feet. Jets develop thrust more slowly and by the time they realize they need more thrust, it may be too late. Supposedly in the early days of jets, there were a lot of crashes due to the pilots trying to fly the jets like propeller airplanes.

    1. I understand that, at least sometimes, pilots of big jets will initially descend below the glide slope and then fly level with additional power until they intercept the glide slope from below. That way they can keep the engines revved up until the last possible moment in case something goes worng.

      Of course, the other advantage to propeller planes…well, at least in a 182 with a STOL kit, you can (almost) land on the width of a major runway. I’m sure there are those who have “landed on the numbers.” Not, mind you, as you’re taught to do, make contact with the runway somewhere in the numbers, but touch down and stop entirely on the numbers.

      In normal practice on a big runway in a light aircraft, you’ll touch down only enough before the runway exit you’re planning on using to slow down to taxi speed by the time you reach said exit. You really don’t want to be taxiing all the way down a mile-long runway at 5-10 mph with a 747 right behind you….



      1. “I understand that, at least sometimes, pilots of big jets will initially descend below the glide slope and then fly level with additional power until they intercept the glide slope from below. That way they can keep the engines revved up until the last possible moment in case something goes worng.”

        Glide slopes should always be intercepted from below…normally ATC will vector you at an altitude to intercept the lateral navigation signal (the localizer) and the vertical needle will show full scale deflection up, meaning you’re way below the glide slope. As you track the localizer, the glide slope needle will move down; when you reach it, you reduce power to begin a descent, keeping both needles centered. If the glide slope needle moves up, you’ve dropped below the desired flight path and you need to correct with more thrust, or pulling back on the yoke slightly.

        With full flaps, gear down, a normal 3 degree glide slope and proper airspeed, the engines will need to carry some thrust to maintain the glide path, so they’ll respond pretty quickly to a thrust increase, but changing the flight path of these huge airplanes takes time; I’m skeptical that if the pilot thought he was about to clip the head off of a beach-goer that there’d be anything he could do about it. An MD-11 pilot friend of mine says that when he pulls back on the yoke, the aircraft will initially sink before it starts to climb, because the first result of the pull is an increased down force on the horizontal stabilizer, which pushes the airplane down until the main wing develops more lift.

      2. …fly level with additional power until they intercept the glide slope from below. That way they can keep the engines revved up until the last possible moment in case something goes worng

        Yeah on the 747 video Jerry posted you can hear the engines being given a nudge up for a few seconds before the plane hops the fence.

        A friend of mine used to live about 4 miles north of LAX with a good (albeit distant) view of final approaches and initial climb outs. When I was there and bothered to watch, you only had to watch for an hour or so to see at least one missed approach.

        1. In commercial aviation, a missed approach is most likely because the previously landing aircraft hasn’t cleared the runway. Costs a hell of a lot of money when a passenger jet does a go-around.

          I did see a jet nearly crash in a severe storm at Heathrow once. The approach wasn’t very stable to start with, then they caught a severe updraft that put them a couple of hundred feet above the glideslope on short final, so the pilot throttled back, then sank like a rock before hitting the go-around button. I swear I thought they were goners.

          1. I still remember, several years ago, driving south on 40th Street in Phoenix somewhere just south of McDowell Road — just to the west of the eastern end of the runways at Sky Harbor. An airliner was landing, getting ready to touch down almost right in front of me…and suddenly he started to execute a missed approach. In a real hurry.

            Just a couple seconds later, another airliner rose above the buildings lining the north side of the airport, not far to the west….

            I’m sure the FAA has paperwork describing the incident, but I doubt anybody but the pilots, controllers, and me realize just how close we came that day to some really nasty headlines on the news.



            1. When I was a student pilot, I was told to “Position and Hold”, which means to sit at the end of the runway ready for take-off. Then the tower cleared a Queen Air twin turbo prop on short final to land on the same runway. There was no time to do anything. The Queen Air went 30 feet over our heads as though they owned the sky, and we requested taxi instructions back to the terminal where my instructor contacted the tower via land line and read them the riot act regarding how there are student pilots, but there is no such thing as a student controller in the tower. As close as I ever want to come to an incident; we were both pretty shaken. I don’t think the Queen Air pilot ever realized, or he would have gone around. Or should have. That’s what you are supposed to do when you see an airplane on the same runway.

              I’m perfectly comfortable with a go-around in commercial aviation. It means that the pilots and the tower are paying attention. I have craploads of good stories from back then. I had a Commercial license with an Instrument rating, but had to give up flying primarily due to finances.

            2. There may be a statistic kept, but there’s no need to file paperwork for an “incident” unless specifically requested by the FAA. They’d be buried in no time.

              I should add that there is actually a “go-around” button on airliners. (It’s manual in a small plane.) My brother has worked as an avionics technician for Continental (now United) for over 20 years, and used to ride along on the recertification check rides when he was in LA. One of the tests was to hit the button at something like 50-100 feet to make sure it worked. Absolutely scary and awesome at the same time.

          2. I’m pretty sure that both missed approaches I’ve been a passenger for were because the approach was actually way off.

            1. Entirely possible. You know how statistics work.

              My only experience as a passenger was the braking was poor at O’Hare due to ice on the runway, and the plane in ahead of us didn’t make the turnoff he was supposed to. Our pilot was plenty pissed that it was another “company plane”. I really regret that you can’t listen to the pilot and air traffic control on the headsets anymore.

              1. I enjoyed that too. Another casualty of 9/11. For a while after, they were simply scrambling the flight numbers. I took a trip to Japan in 10/2001 where you could still listen to the cockpit transmissions, but our pilot was using a phony flight number.

    2. In this case, the Pilot Flying will be descending below the glide slope to touch down before the standard touchdown zone, which are 1000 to 1500 feet down the runway. At a (relatively) short runway like Princess Julianna with a heavy widebody like a 747, you need all the runway you can get. The cockpit of a 747 is also several stories above the wheels during an approach to landing, so a close clearing over the fence and precise touchdown take considerable skill and experience. I personally love the challenge of landing on a short runway. Short takeoffs also present their own dangers and difficulties, but with fewer factors that I can manipulate.

  9. If you look at the video at the 25 sec mark you can see that the adjoining section of fence just to the right of the section that the planes fly over is somewhat taller.

  10. Would anyone who’s been to St. Maarten care to comment on its attributes as a vacation spot? I’m trying to plan a honeymoon.

  11. Then there was DC’s notoriously hazardous Hoover Field (where the Pentagon is now), which opened in the mid ’20’s. When it merged with the adjacent Washington Airport to form Washington-Hoover Airport, relieving many safety problems, a new one was created. Military Road separated the two fields, which then bisected the landing strip of the new, bigger creation. Re-routing the road would have cost more than anyone wanted to pay, so traffic was stopped whenever there was incoming or outgoing.

    1. Here in NZ, Gisborne Airport has a runway that crosses the Gisborne branch railway line. Or possibly vice versa. You can see it on Google Maps. There’s only a couple of freight trains a week, I expect the train has to stop and check in with Air Traffic Control. I’d love to hear the conversation – “Kiwirail 237, you are cleared for Runway 32”.

    2. The airfield at Gibraltar still does the same thing. The runway itself cuts across the peninsula and extends into the bay on a causeway built from rock which was a byproduct of tunneling.

      The main road cuts perpendicularly across the runway and traffic has to stop whenever planes are landing or taking off.


  12. The beach at St Maarten is kind of fun to watch, but you barely notice anything from the plane. For real thrills you should try landing at Saba, one of the nearby islands. Saba is basically the tip of a mostly underwater mountain; awesome diving there because it keeps going almost straight down under the surface.

    Anyway, the lack of flat land means it has the shortest commercial runway in the world. Doesn’t take jets, only prop planes. The major local island-hopper airline uses Twin Otters; and those have to rev up to full throttle at one end, before what I’d describe as dropping the clutch (but I’m not a pilot). Sometimes if the flight’s full, you’ll notice the plane drop slightly off the cliff at the end before it “catches” and starts to climb…

  13. A big thanks to everyone contributing to this thread–absolutely fascinating info! And who knew how many pilots we had reading this website?

    I recently had a Spanish teacher who’d just returned from Honduras. She asked the class, “Anyone know something distinctive about Tegucigalpa?” (Student: “It’s the hardest capital to pronounce?”) She then proceeded to fill us in on why it’s one of the most dangerous airports in the world.

    When I was a student in Ithaca, NY, I had to drive by the airport on the way home from campus. Each time I’d notice a “Caution: Low-flying Planes” sign, and think, “well, duh, this is an airport.” Until one day I drove by as a jet was coming in and I was quite certain it was about to land on the roof of my Opel. Then I understood. . .

    1. I used to fly into Teguchigalpa in the 1980’s on my way to my research in Costa Rica. There were actual crashed planes sitting off in the grass along the runway! Looked like they had been there for years.

  14. Save your travel dollars. Eat lunch at the In-N-Out burger place at the east end of LAX’s north runway. The outdoor tables will allow one the opportunity to see exactly this landing. Make sure you wave at the pilots!

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