By Joan Larsen
I remember the passengers on that plane screaming as we came in far too low over one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, the wheels of our plane almost grazing the sunbathers only a few feet below. No one had told us that us that St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana airport was considered one of the most dangerous in the world! No one on that plane knew. We thought we were going to die. Or those on the beach were. We were inches from clipping the airport fence. The landing strip was said to be far too short to insure a safe landing for larger aircraft. . . but pilots considered it “a challenge”. And so, for me, it was my first white knuckle landing.
There would be many more. Many – as I searched out the remote islands of the Caribbean over time.
For a day trip from St. Maarten, we flew to the little-known island of Saba – a “don’t miss” spot, by the way! Again, we had not yet heard that Saba had the shortest landing strip in the world – with its dirt runway high on a cliff that was sheer on both ends. We were on a short takeoff-and-landing small plane. There was no need for a bigger plane anyhow — as we found out that only a few daredevils would even take this life-and-death chance years and years ago. Do notice the line of taxis at the “airport” on the video (below). Each day the local drivers make bets if the plane will overfly the runway this day and fall off the cliff. (Oh, I must say that we flew there so long ago that the runway was potholed dirt as well – and a plane could not land at all without ending up at the far end of the cliff, before braking and turning at the very last minute!)
Days later, we were tanned and happy, ready to leave St. Maarten. . . and noticed our new airline’s name was not familiar: Caribair. Only later did we find out that their unofficial slogan was: If you don’t care, fly Caribair. No one had told us this fact, but we were to find out why.
Cruising up the outside stairs to the plane in St. Maarten, we settled ourselves in our seats. . . very unsuspecting! All was so official. The flight attendants locked the door, and did the usual pre-flight talk with authority. “We will be taking off in several minutes”, they said, smiling. We waited, waited some more. And then there was a terrible pounding on the outside of the fuselage of our plane, a smacking of the plane with an open palm many times! The flight attendants, stunned, went to the door we had come in and unlocked and opened it. And outside — well, there were a very aggravated pilot and co-pilot, who stormed in and took their place in the cockpit. Already, Caribair had lived up to its motto and we hadn’t even taken off!
We had saved the most romantic destination for the last. In the British Virgin Islands lies Virgin Gorda (The Fat Virgin), secluded, translucent seas, palm fronds waving in the breeze, and having its own very hidden hideaway, Little Dix Bay. It has lived up to our every dream each time we have returned.
But when it was time to leave, the rains came down in torrents, sad to see us go. A tiny plane, just up there for us, flew over the little dirt airstrip that had large potholes full of water. And then it circled again. The pilot flew low, leaning out of the cockpit window and yelled loudly: “NO WAY”! And he left.
Solutions were quickly found. We went to St. Thomas – and to our waiting plane – by launch. It did seem a better choice.
The sun again shone. All was well. The airport at St. Thomas was nestled with low mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. These were the early days – and we noticed that the barrier to running off the runway and into the sea was a wall of wrecked cars. Unique. . . what else can I say?
We felt safe, all strapped in. But there was no one on earth who had not heard or seen days of world news of a year before that a large plane from the U.S. had crashed into the mountain in front of us. Still, I saw no sign of worry as the plane taxied to the sea, its edge a large sculpture of wrecked cars.
The plane circled back on the runway toward the mountains, going the usual fast speed. And then there was a screech of tires that never ended. People screamed and screamed. After a time, the United pilot announced calmly that we were going to turn around and “try again”.
This time we passengers were gripping the arm rests, hands white-knuckled. Some people prayed. Most were frozen in place. When we cleared the mountains on the second try, applause and cheers resounded. On the whole journey back to Miami, strangers became friends, talking like we were in some private fraternity. NOT to be forgotten to this day.
What have I learned from those experiences early on in my life of travel? Those early memories remain like gold to me, to be pulled up at will. But now I felt “seasoned” in a small way. I learned that to reach some of the world’s most beautiful and remote locations, we travelers may have to deal with a few scary takeoffs and landings – of many many sorts – along the way. But oh! it is so worth it!
The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine,
bracing and delicious,
And why shouldn’t it be?
It is the same the angels breathe.
Mark Twain, Roughing It
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”