(CNN) — Flying into Saba is not for the faint hearted. The vertiginous slopes and sea cliffs of this five-square-mile island in the Caribbean do not depart a lot area to land a aircraft. But Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, clinging to Saba’s solely little bit of flat land, is proof that it may be accomplished.
With a strip of asphalt simply 1,300 toes lengthy (about 400 meters), solely 900 toes of that are “usable,” the runway will not be for much longer than an plane provider.
Sheer drops into the sea at both finish add an additional layer of pleasure to the arrival on what’s acknowledged as being the shortest commercial runway in the world.
The runway seems on certainly one of Saba’s postage stamps, and the memento store in the village of Windwardside sells T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “I survived the Saba landing!”
You may take the ferry to get right here, however the flight typically seems in lists of the “world’s scariest landings,” and that appears purpose sufficient to give it a attempt.
But is it actually as hair-raising as it’s made out to be?
An elite class of pilot
The 15-minute flights from Sint Maarten are on 19-seater de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters, STOL (brief takeoff and touchdown) utility plane designed to serve difficult airports and cease shortly, a bonus that turns into apparent as soon as the wheels contact down on Saba.
It takes an elite group of specifically skilled pilots to fly into the island, with Sint Maarten-based Winair the solely airline working scheduled flights out and in.
Veteran aviator Captain Roger Hodge is Winair’s Twin Otter fleet teacher, and has skilled each certainly one of them. “Once a guy has been fully trained and we’re satisfied, we radio into operations that another Top Gun is born. That’s what we call them,” he says.
Before boarding, I ask him what to count on on the 15-minute flight. “May the Lord be with you,” he says solemnly, earlier than laughing and telling me that I’m going to take pleasure in it, and to sit on the proper to see the wings brush the mountainside on closing method. Already I really feel my coronary heart beating sooner.
“Flying into Saba gets kind of hairy sometimes, but by knowing what to do, we make it look simple and calm,” says Hodge.
Those bushy conditions contain the normal aviation emergency eventualities resembling engine failure on method, however there are different concerns due to the shortness of the runway and its downward slope. There are weight and wind velocity limitations, too. The identical goes for rain. If the touchdown strip is moist, nobody is flying in. On a runway this brief, there is not any room for error.
“As a pilot I just love going into Saba because that’s when you put your experience to work,” he says. “There’s always adrenaline that kicks in because you’re being watched by passengers and people on the ground, but you’ve just got to fly that machine.”
An aerial journey
In spite of the impending pleasure, boarding at Sint Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport is a reasonably relaxed affair.
There’s no assigned seating so aviation followers in search of a pilot’s eye view ought to squeeze in first to nab the scorching seat — 1B — proper at the entrance in the center. With no door separating the cockpit from the cabin, it’s like sitting between the Captain and the First Officer.
Sint Maarten’s inexperienced mountains, golden seashores and turquoise waters make for a scenic departure, however there’s not a lot time to sit again and luxuriate in the views. After takeoff, flight WM441 flies in a straight line in the direction of Saba, the island’s silhouette seen on the horizon simply 24 miles away. There’s fixed exercise in the cockpit, flicking of switches and twisting of knobs and dials, with each pilots working in excellent coordination.
As the miles shortly fall away, the island looms nearer and nearer. And nearer. It’s extremely stunning but additionally lump-in-the-throat stuff, and there is a second when it feels as in case you’re heading straight for the volcanic slopes.
But at the final minute, the aircraft makes a pointy financial institution to the left in the path of the runway which, till this level, has been invisible. Passengers on the right-hand facet have close-up views of the sea cliffs. Passengers on the left look straight down into the water.
As the aircraft ranges out for closing method the wing virtually skims the hillside, however the plane is available in low and easy and touches down with a squeak of rubber, an enormous blast of reverse thrust, and a brief taxi to the very finish of the runway the place those that nonetheless have their eyes open can peer down into the water under.
Scary? Yes. Worth it? Definitely.
Bringing the island out of isolation
The first pilot to land on Saba should have had an much more thrilling expertise.
Ambitious aviator Rémy de Haenen from the neighboring island of St Barthélemy made the island’s first touchdown in 1959. Many close by islands already had airstrips constructed throughout World War II, however Saba’s steep sides and lack of flat floor had been thought of unsuitable.
But de Haenen challenged the thought, surveying the topography and finally figuring out the aptly named Flat Point as the most promising website for his try to pilot the first flight into Saba.
Saban historian Will Johnson’s father used to farm Flat Point on floor owned by his grandfather. “My father gave permission to clear out the land, and he must have figured that if the attempt didn’t succeed, at least all the rocks would be gone,” he says.
A former island commissioner, senator and writer of the Saba Herald newspaper for 25 years, Johnson’s information of the island is encyclopaedic. He says that when the resolution had been made to give it a attempt, inside a few weeks and with little gear aside from “one or two wheelbarrows,” the land had been cleared and flattened, prepared for the tried touchdown.
Plenty of individuals on the island nonetheless keep in mind de Haenen touchdown his Dornier Do-27 on the newly cleared stretch of land on February 9, 1959. “Everybody came out, crowds and crowds of people. It was amazing,” says James Franklin Johnson, a mountain information for the Saba Conservation Foundation who was eight years outdated at the time. “Saba came out of isolation when the plane landed on the island.”
But de Haenen’s touchdown did not ignite a direct flurry of aviation exercise. He was banned from repeating his touchdown due to questions of safety, and it wasn’t till 1963 that Saba had its personal absolutely functioning airport.
A closing burst of adrenaline
Most of Saba’s aviation hype revolves round the touchdown, however the island reserves a closing burst of adrenaline for these departing by air. The imaginatively named major highway, The Road, presents the excellent vantage level for views of the airport, and the courageous might want to watch a flight taking off earlier than their very own departure. The aircraft makes use of the whole size of the runway, at the final minute lifting off when there’s virtually no floor left.
Starting from the very finish, the aircraft speeds down the runway, coming nearer and nearer to the finish, and for a second it appears to drop off in the direction of the water, earlier than a whoosh propels the aircraft — and its very relieved passengers — skywards.
It could also be a badge of honor to say you’ve got survived the Saba touchdown, however the thrill of the take-off from Juancho E. Yrausquin airport deserves its personal place in the world’s scariest rankings.