(DailyExpertNews) — Flying to Saba is not for the faint of heart. The dizzying slopes and sea cliffs of this three-square-mile island in the Caribbean don’t leave much room for a plane to land. But Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, clinging to Saba’s only patch of flat land, is proof that it can be done.
With a strip of asphalt only 1,300 feet long (about 400 meters), of which only 900 feet are “usable,” the runway isn’t much longer than an aircraft carrier.
The steep slopes into the sea at both ends add an extra layer of excitement to the arrival at what is recognized as the shortest commercial airstrip in the world.
The runway is featured on one of Saba’s stamps and the souvenir shop in the village of Windwardside sells T-shirts with the slogan, “I survived the Saba landing!”
You could take the ferry to get here, but the flight often appears in lists of “the world’s scariest landings,” and that seems like reason enough to give it a try.
But is it really 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 (short takeoff and landing) utility aircraft designed to serve challenging airports and stop quickly, an advantage that becomes apparent as soon as the wheels hit on Saba.
It takes an elite group of specially trained pilots to fly into the island, with Sint Maarten-based Winair being the only airline operating scheduled flights in and out.
Veteran aviator Captain Roger Hodge is Winair’s Twin Otter fleet instructor and has trained them all. “Once a man is fully trained and we are satisfied, we broadcast the operation that another Top Gun is born. That’s what we call them,” he says.
Before boarding, I ask him what to expect on the 15 minute flight. “May the Lord be with you,” he says solemnly, before laughing and telling me I’m going to enjoy it and sit on the right side to watch the wings brush the mountainside on the final approach. I can feel my heart beating faster already.
“Flying to Saba gets a little hairy at times, but by knowing what to do, we make it look simple and calm,” says Hodge.
Those furry situations include the usual aviation emergency scenarios such as engine failure on approach, but there are other considerations due to the short runway and downward slope. There are also weight and wind speed restrictions. The same goes for rain. If the runway is wet, no one will fly in. There is no room for error on such a short runway.
“As a pilot, I love going to Saba, because then you apply your experience,” he says. “There’s always adrenaline that comes up because you’re being watched by passengers and people on the ground, but you just have to fly that machine.”
An aerial adventure
Despite the imminent excitement, boarding at Sint Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport is a fairly relaxed affair.
No seats are assigned, so aviation fans looking for a pilot’s perspective will have to squeeze in first to get their hands on the hot seat – 1B – right in the front and center. With no door separating the cockpit from the cabin, it’s like sitting between the captain and the first officer.
Sint Maarten’s verdant mountains, golden beaches, and turquoise waters make for a scenic departure, but there’s not much time to sit back and enjoy the view. After takeoff, flight WM441 flies in a straight line towards Saba, the silhouette of the island visible on the horizon just 24 miles away. There is constant activity in the cockpit, the tapping of switches and the turning of buttons and dials, with both pilots working in perfect coordination.
As the miles quickly disappear, the island looms closer and closer. And closer. It’s incredibly beautiful, but also a lump in the throat, and there’s a moment when it feels like you’re going straight to the volcanic slopes.
But at the very last moment, the plane makes a sharp left turn toward the previously invisible runway. Passengers on the right have a close-up view of the sea cliffs. Passengers on the left look straight down into the water.
As the plane approaches just before final approach, the wing practically skims the ramp, but the plane enters low and smooth and lands with a squeaky rubber, a huge thrust of reverse thrust and a short taxi to the end of the runway where those who still have their eyes open can look down into the water below.
Scary? Yes. Worth the effort? Surely.
Getting the island out of its isolation
The first pilot to land on Saba must have had an even more thrilling experience.
Ambitious aviator Rémy de Haenen from the neighboring island of St. Barthélemy made the first landing on the island in 1959. Many nearby islands had already built runways during World War II, but Saba’s steep walls and lack of level ground became unsuitable deemed.
But de Haenen challenged the idea, surveying the topography and eventually identifying the aptly named Flat Point as the most promising location for his attempt to pilot the maiden flight to Saba.
Saban historian Will Johnson’s father farmed Flat Point on land owned by his grandfather. “My father gave permission to clear the land, and he must have thought that if the attempt failed, at least all the stones would be gone,” he says.
Johnson’s knowledge of the island is encyclopedic, a former island commissioner, senator, and editor of the Saba Herald newspaper for 25 years. He says that when the decision was made to give it a try, in a matter of weeks and with little equipment other than “one or two wheelbarrows”, the land was cleared and flattened, ready for the attempted landing.
Many people on the island still remember that De Haenen landed his Dornier Do-27 on 9 February 1959 on the newly cleared piece of land. “Everyone came out, crowds and crowds of people. It was amazing,” said James Franklin Johnson, a mountain guide for the Saba Conservation Foundation who was eight years old at the time. “Saba came out of his isolation when the plane landed on the island.”
But De Haenen’s landing did not immediately trigger a wave of aviation activities. He was not allowed to repeat his landing due to safety concerns, and it wasn’t until 1963 that Saba had its own fully functioning airport.
One last burst of adrenaline
Most of Saba’s aviation hype revolves around the landing, but the island reserves one last adrenaline rush for those departing by plane. The imaginatively named main road, The Road, provides the perfect vantage point for views of the airport, and the brave may want to watch a flight take off before taking off on their own. The plane uses the entire length of the runway to take off at the very last minute when there is practically no ground left.
All the way from the end, the plane hurtles down the runway, getting closer and closer to the end, and for a moment it seems to descend to the water, before a whizz propels the plane — and its very relieved passengers — skyward.
It might be a badge of honor to say you survived the Saba landing, but the thrill of taking off from Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport deserves its own place in the world’s scariest rankings.