"Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect."- Captain A. G. Lamplugh
Welcome to our new series of articles that will take a look at some of the most interesting airports from across the globe. Over the next few issues, we will attempt to replicate some of the challenging and unique approaches that can set the heart to beating faster, and cause our brows to bead with sweat. The airports will be presented in no particular order, unlike many TV show formats that count down to the purported ‘most dangerous’ airport. I take exception to a few of the airports that are listed in some of the popular TV shows, so don’t expect to see San Diego or Osaka in THIS series!
In my career I’ve had the opportunity, on a few occasions, to visit airports I would consider ‘challenging’ but by no means dangerous. Rarely are airports outright dangerous, but the combination of difficult weather, terrain, performance challenges, or unusual procedural parameters can combine to ratchet up the risk factor. Sometimes these factors are unavoidable.
For example, the mountain is too big to move or the only place to build an airport is on a small sliver of land. In some instances, however, operational limitations, such as complex noise abatement procedures or the encroachment of urban areas around an airport, can lead to unique conditions. In addition, psychological factors can often lead to overcompensation or degraded pilot performance. If I were to put a generic 3000ft landing strip in front of any of my former students, they could all have uneventful landings nearly 100% of the time (landings you can walk away from, anyway). However, take that same strip of pavement and place a 500ft vertical cliff face at the end of it, or a lake full of crocodiles just in front, and you can throw past performance out the window, as nerves will kick in. What was simple and automatic in one situation now becomes a life-or-death act that can visibly affect performance. That is why many of the airports you’ll read about in this series require government mandated special aircrew certification and training, or at the very least an elevated level of respect, study, and planning to safely operate to and from that location.
Half the fun is getting there
The first airport we will showcase, I’d venture to say, ticks off most of the requirements of being ‘dangerous’, ‘difficult’, and ‘odd’. A runway length of 2000ft is tight enough under most circumstances and requires extra special attention to detail, but when you shoehorn that 1/3 of a mile of pavement into a strip of land that is bordered on one side by an enormous hill and on the other by a picture postcard tropical bay (sans crocodiles), you get the ultimate challenge provided by Saint Barthelemy’s Gustav III airport. Located in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, St. Barts (TFFJ), is famous for its steep approach to Runway 10.
With prevailing easterly trade winds, the air is naturally funnelled into St. Jean Bay and driven up the slope west of the airfield – further complicating a geographically technical approach, with varying wind velocity and turbulence. Despite the conditions, an endless stream of aircraft ferry tourists and residents back and forth across the short 17 nautical mile span of water that separates St. Barts from the nearest international terminal located on Saint Maarten. With just 2133ft of runway, the airfield at St. Barts is the playground for short-field performers such as the Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander, the Cessna 208 Caravan, and the truly STOL-capable de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter.
Ground proximity warning need not apply
We’ll first take a look at the harrowing visual approach to runway 10 made famous in photos and videos. The crux of the approach is the final 700 horizontal feet from which you must descend from approximately 170ft down to the threshold at 48ft – an approximate descent gradient of around 17%! Obviously to accomplish such a steep approach you will need a combination of tools and techniques to assist you. The first thing you’ll need is pitch, meaning you will have to push the nose over abnormally far, which gives a somewhat terrifying view through the cockpit windows.
With such excessive pitch you’ll need a lot of drag to keep your airspeed in check, so plan on deploying full flaps, landing gear should be extended well ahead of time, props should be forward, and if you have lift dumping or drag devices, such as speed brakes, they might also be extended (in accordance with the aircraft operating limitations of course). Critical to the approach is nailing your airspeed to prevent float, yet also carry enough speed margin over the stall to deal with unpredictable wind conditions. A general rule of thumb is to fly Vref + 1/2 the steady state wind + gust factor, but no greater than Vref+20. The temptation to fly too slowly should be resisted because there is a measurable increase in load factor on the aircraft in the final seconds when you pitch the aircraft up into the normal landing flare. It isn’t unusual to hear a brief chirp of the stall warning during an aggressive flare from an abnormally high rate of descent, so be aware that you’ll bleed speed rapidly during the unusually abrupt flare.
Avoid motor vehicles
As if terrain and shifting winds weren’t enough to deal with at St. Barts, you also have to carefully judge your height above the traffic circle at the top of the Col de la Tourmente. Passing cars, pedestrians, and trucks pose a very real hazard to low flying aircraft. With your attention so focused on the end of the runway and airspeed, it can be easy to forget to provide enough altitude buffer to avoid striking objects on the ground. The final insult is that when you touchdown on runway 10 you will be at 48ft but the runway slopes down toward the beach at an impressive 10 degree angle.
It is worth mentioning that the entire approach can be flawless, but a poor flare and touchdown can ruin the whole setup. St. Barts is not the place to be delicate! Prior to embarking your passengers, tell them that the goal at St. Barts isn’t a smooth landing, but a firm one. The flare should be just aggressive enough to slow your rate of descent, but not completely arrest it. You want the landing gear to hit firmly and you want the airplane to stop flying and transfer the load from the wings to the wheels. Holding the plane off and feeling for that perfect ‘greaser’ landing will simply eat up the remaining runway and could quite possibly put you on the beach or in the bay far sooner than you had planned on your vacation. Braking should be aggressive, something that is rarely practiced due to passenger comfort and a desire to be smooth. Blowing your tires however, will not endear you to the other aircraft lined up to land behind you.
The less glamorous approach
Approaches to runway 28 are slightly less challenging, but as noted on the advisory chart “going around on short final is prohibited”, so you had best have your ducks in a row throughout the approach. Take-offs from runway 28 are flatly prohibited, so you are relegated to taking the scenic route off of runway 10 to the east then north over Saint Jean Bay. During the take-off run, you will likely have the dual advantage of having prevailing winds reducing your take-off distance and the benefit of the 10 degree down-sloping runway. Commuters travelling the brief hop to Saint Maarten have the added benefit of not having to carry much fuel, thus reducing the take-off weight considerably. Due to the short runway and the unlikely ability to stop in the event of an engine failure, it is advisable to do a static run-up prior to brake release, to check your engine parameters before commencing the take-off roll. If you do suffer an engine failure immediately after take-off, remember to turn left and head north towards the ocean, or you will find yourself struggling to climb over the hills ringing the east side of Saint Jean Bay.
Odds and ends
St. Barts has no IFR arrival or departure procedures, but the fair weather in the eastern Caribbean means that poor weather is usually of the tropical rain shower variety and quickly moves off (with the notable exception of hurricanes). The airport is unlit, so operations are restricted to daytime VFR only. Approach control is handled by Princess Juliana airport on Saint Maarten and a special landing permit must be obtained from French authorities prior to operating to St. Barts. Also noteworthy is that neither fuel nor mechanics are available at St. Barts, so plan your fuel stops accordingly.
Once you’ve flown into St. Barts in Flight Simulator, it will definitely give you the fever to attempt the approach in real life. With jaw-dropping scenery, a challenging approach, the promise of a rum and coke and perhaps rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, there are many reasons for me wanting to pack my bags. Unfortunately I haven’t found anyone willing to let me risk their aircraft flying into St. Barts, but I can always dream.
How to replicate this flight in flight simulator
Please note that this flight can be replicated in either FS9 or FSX using any aircraft. Obviously with the limited runway distance aircraft capable of short take-offs and landing should be selected. The largest aircraft reported to have operated to and from St. Barts is a DC-3. For maximum realism I’d recommend the Flight1 BN-2B Islander (www.flight1.com) or the default Cessna Caravan. For scenery the FlyTampa St. Maarten package includes several airports including St. Barts and Princess Juliana (www.flytampa.org). For those on a budget we’ve included the spectacular freeware St. Barts scenery by Marc-Henry Guitteny on this month’s cover disk. You’ll find it in our ‘Freeware’ section.
The recommended starting point for the flight is Princess Juliana airport on St. Maarten (TNCM). Use your GPS to fly direct to St. Barts (TFFJ) or simply take- ff and fly a heading of 130° and you will see St. Barts immediately 17 miles distant. I’d recommend setting the weather options to automatically update to reflect real world conditions.
The French Service De L’Information Aeronautique offers an advisory chart with pertinent flight paths and procedural recommendations available here: http://tinyurl.com/TFFJ-Chart