Monday, August 3, 2009

Landing on Saba - Not something for the sane!

I am sitting on a veranda in St Maarten shooting the breeze, after a formal interview, with an old resident of the island. I mention my upcoming visit to Saba (my first, back in 1989). Saba is one of the other Dutch Windwards. It stands on the sea horizon somewhere just out of sight. Jokingly, I express concern about the landing.

Just to let you know some key facts - at 400 metres the airstrip is extremely short, it sits on the only (nearly) flat bit of land on the island – it’s still on a slope, though - on a promontory with a 150ft drop at one end and a 350 ft drop at the other. You don’t want to mis-time it, anyway. As you’ll see in the clip below there can be cross-winds too. They make you want to lean forward and tap the pilot on the shoulder and say –

‘Excuse me, I just think you ought to know, the runway’s over there.’

Sure, they have special STOL aircraft (Short Take Off and Landing), usually Twin Otters, which anyway are fantastically manoeuvrable, and the pilots have to retrain every ten minutes – and you know they want to crash even less than you do – all that bureaucracy... But still it’s a nervous moment, landing on a strip shorter than most self-respecting aircraft carriers.

Eventually the conversation was concluded by my wizened interviewee, in a voice that was calm, if slightly dead-pan, no lugubrious... or was that apocalyptic?

‘Doan worry, man,’ he intones. ‘They only use half the runway...’

Unfortunately, when I landed, they decided to use the second half of the runway...

When you’re dangling in mid air, seemingly on a piece of string tweaked by a malevolent air sprite, runways seem deceptively small. My mind shuffles quickly – fine, there’s the island, but where the actual landing strip? Hold on, he can’t mean that postage stamp, surely? Oh, he does? Well, you’re coming in far too steep, mate – manoeuvrability maybe, but you’re going to overshoot. At least he is pointing along the runway, so the cross-winds aren’t too bad. But then a blast buffets us from the side and we lurch left. He brings it back on line admirably quickly, but still he is aiming too far down the strip. I am sure of it.

By now he is gliding. We slide high over the cliff at the start of the runway, past the windsock, then 100 yards later past the terminal building with its diminutive fire engine. Eventually we touch down half way along the landing strip. Alarms beep all over the place. The woman next to me in Row One put her face in her hands and her husband goes into rictus, bolt upright with an electrified expression. And then there is something as close to panic as I have seen in a pilot. His faces furrows in concentration. He proceeds with his drills, putting on reverse thrust and the brakes at the same time. The plane roars, strains and judders under the load.

Suddenly a tyre bursts, and we begin to bounce sideways as well, slewing right. Finally we come to a halt. The pilot takes in a deep breath... And lets it out again... Sanguine feller. Later, my joke ran that when you opened the door you closed it again... having decided to get out the other side of the plane because of the 400 foot drop with no steps, but actually it wasn’t quite that bad. We have come to a halt, at forty-five degrees to the runway, with about fifteen yards to spare. That’s maximum runway utilization, but not much room for comfort. We walked to the terminal building wobbly legged. Except the man next to me, who is still stiff and moving like a mummy.

Welcome to Saba. Oh, I nearly forgot. What’s Saba actually like? Well it’s great. Odd but intriguing to visit. Once you’ve got there that is...

If you’re not up for the adventure, you can actually go by boat nowadays. Meanwhile, enjoy the video clip of a landing at Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport.

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