(CNN) – Flying in Saba is not for the faint of heart. The steep slopes and sea cliffs of this five-square-mile island in the Caribbean leave no more space for the plane to land. But Juancho e. Yarauskin Airport, Sabani just sticking to a little flat land, is proof that it can be done.
With an asphalt strip only 1,300 feet long (approximately 400 meters), of which only 900 feet is “useful”, the runway is no longer than an aircraft carrier.
Intense drops in the ocean at both ends add an extra level of excitement to its arrival, known as the world’s shortest commercial runway.
The runway appears on a Sabani postage stamp, and the Windside Village souvenir shop reads “I survived Saba’s landing!” Sells T-shirts carved with the slogan.
You can take a ferry to get here, but the flight often appears on the list of “the scariest landings in the world” and there seems to be enough reason to try it.
But is it really the same as raising hair as it is made?
An elite class of pilots
15-minute flights from St. Maarten to 19-seater de Haviland Canada DHC-6 twin otters, STOL (short takeoff and landing) utility aircraft designed to serve challenging airports and close quickly, an advantage that once the wheels are down Then becomes clear. On saba.
It takes a select group of specially trained pilots to fly over the island, with Sint Martin-based Wiener being the only airline that operates scheduled flights in and out.
Veteran aviator Captain Roger Hodge is Weiner’s Twin Otter Fleet instructor, and he trains everyone. “Once one person is fully trained and we are satisfied, we radio in operation that another top gun is born. That’s what we tell them,” he says.
Before boarding, I ask him what to expect in a 15-minute flight. “God be with you,” he says solemnly, before smiling and telling me I enjoy it, and sitting to the right to watch him brush his wings on the mountain on the final approach. Already I feel like my heart is beating fast.
“Flying in Saba sometimes becomes hairy, but knowing what to do, we make it easy and quiet,” says Hodge.
Those hairy conditions include common aviation emergency situations such as engine failure in approach, but other considerations due to the shortness of the runway and its downward slope. There are also weight and wind speed limitations. The same is true for rain. If the landing strip is wet, no one flies inside. On such a short runway, there is no room for error.
“As a pilot I love going to Saba because that’s when you put your experience to work,” he says. “There’s always adrenaline that kicks in because you’re watched by passengers and people on the ground, but you have to blow up that machine.”
An aerial adventure
Despite the impending excitement, boarding at Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten is a fairly light affair.
There is no assigned seat so flight fans who are looking for a pilot’s eye view should first squeeze to grab the hot seat – 1B – in the middle of the front. Since there is no door separating the cockpit from the cabin, it is like sitting between the captain and the first officer.
The green mountains of St. Martin, the golden beaches and the turquoise waters make for a scenic departure, but there is not much time to sit back and enjoy the views. After takeoff, flight WM441 flies in a straight line towards Saba, the island’s silhouette appearing on the horizon just 24 miles away. Continuous movements in the cockpit, flicking of switches and twisting of knobs and dials, both pilots work in perfect coordination.
The island gets closer and closer as the miles go by faster. And closer. It’s incredibly beautiful but has a lump-like stuff in the throat, and there’s a moment when it feels like you’re heading straight for the slope of the volcano.
But at the very last moment, the plane makes a sharp edge to the left in the direction of the runway which, up to this point, was invisible. The passengers on the right have a close-up view of the sea cliffs. Passengers on the left look straight into the water below.
The wing practically goes to the side of the hill as the plane exits for the final approach, but the aircraft comes low and smooth and with a rubber low, a hefty blast of reverse thrust and a short taxi at the end of the runway touches the bottom. Where still those whose eyes are open can see in the water below.
Scary? Yes. To eat Certainly.
Bringing the island out of loneliness
The first pilot to land on Saba must have had a more exciting experience.
Remy de Heine, an aspiring aviator from the neighboring island of St. Barthelemy, made the island’s first landing in 1959. Airfields had already been built on many of the nearby islands during World War II, but the lack of sloping sides and flat land was considered unsuitable.
But de Henen challenged the idea, surveyed the topography and finally correctly identified Flat Point as the most promising place for his attempt to pilot the first flight to Sabah.
Saban historian Will Johnson’s father farmed flat points on land owned by his grandfather. “My father allowed the land to be cleared, and he would have thought that if the attempt was not successful, at least all the rocks would be gone,” he says.
Johnson, a former island commissioner, senator and publisher of the Saba Herald newspaper for 25 years, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the island. He says that when it was decided to try it out, in a few weeks and with less equipment than “one or two wheelbarrows”, the ground was cleared and flattened, ready for the attempted landing.
Plenty of people on the island still remember De Henen landing his Dornier Do-27 on February 9, 1959 on newly cleared land. James Franklin Johnson says, “Everyone came out, crowds and crowds of people. It was wonderful,” said Mountain Guide to the Saba Conservation Foundation who was eight years old at the time. “Saba came out of loneliness when the plane landed on the island.”
But the landing of de Henen did not cause an immediate stir in aviation activity. Repeated landings were banned due to safety issues, and it was not until 1963 that Sabah had its own fully operational airport.
The final burst of adrenaline
Most of Saba’s flight fame revolves around landing, but the island reserves a final burst of adrenaline for those departing by air. The fictionally named main road, The Road, offers a perfect point for views of the airport, and the brave want to see a flight takeoff before their own departure. The plane uses the entire length of the runway, being lifted at the last minute when there is practically no land left.
Starting from the very end, the plane descends at the speed of the runway, and approaches the end, and for a moment it seems to be falling into the water, before a hush moves the plane forward – and its very relieved passengers – – Towards the sky.
It may be a badge of honor to say that you survived the Saba Landing, but Juancho E. The thrill of take-off from Yarauskin Airport deserves its place in the world’s scariest rankings.