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It's been called one of the most challenging airports in the world. The Gustaf III Airport in Saint Barthelemy provides a unique set of challenges for the pilots who must be individually trained and certified to land on its single runway.
You've probably seen the incredible videos of planes taking off and landing here, so what exactly does it take to fly into such a challenging airport? We wanted to find out how pilots are trained to fly into St. Barths and what specific risks they face on either end of its runway. We spoke to Nick Ogle, the Chief Pilot of Tradewind Aviation to find out more.
If you've ever dreamt of flying here yourself, read below and find out one way to do it...
It seems like such a strange place to put an airport! The St. Barths airport is incredibly convenient for tourists visiting the island, far more so than the 20 mile boat ride from St. Maarten. Its single runway is just over 2,100 feet long, with a large hill off the approach end to Runway 10 and a beach at the end of opposing Runway 28. The airport is only open during certain hours, with no night operations.
Aerial traffic around the small island is surprisingly heavy, with dozens of daily commercial flights operated by Cessna 208 Caravans, Twin Otters, Britten-Norman Islanders, and Pilatus PC12s, in addition to some private aircraft flying into the island. The Saint Barthelemy AFIS (Automatic Flight Information Service) is responsible for providing information and alert services within the restricted area over the airport and island (TA R2), in partnership with Saint Martin Juliana Approach Control. By working with St. Barths AFIS, pilots receive traffic and weather information, but no clearances to takeoff or land.
While there are no instrument approaches into St. Barths, there are a few mandatory reporting points around the island. As you'll read about later, you have to be specifically trained and certified to fly into this airport, so most pilots are really good about correct reporting procedures. There's also a charted visual approach into the airport:
From its Caribbean base in San Juan, Tradewind operates a large fleet of Pilatus PC12 aircraft around the Caribbean, scheduling Part 135 charter service into St. Barths from San Juan, St. Thomas, Nevis, and Antigua. As a PC12 operator, they must stay within gliding distance of land at all times when operating Part 135 across the waters of the Caribbean. That in mind, much of the altitude and routing structure for Tradewind is based upon this requirement.
The PC12 is a favorite of pilots around the world for its incredible short field performance, low stall speed (66 knots!), comfortable cabin, and a set of trailing-link gear that makes every landing smooth. 10 More Reasons The PC12 Is One Of The World's Best Turboprops
The approach and landing to Runway 10 is what St. Barths is known for, and is also the most common approach because of typical seasonal wind patterns. There are numerous challenges created by the approach path from this direction, including: a large hill that ends just a few feet from the runway's pavement, a traffic circle sitting atop that same hill, distractions from dozens of waving tourists standing right below the approach path, mountains on either side of the airport, and turbulence caused by rough terrain, in addition to many others.
Going around on an approach to Runway 10 is relatively simple: Bring the flaps and gear up while increasing power, and climb out over the bay with a slight left turn.
The roughly 6 degree glideslope at St. Barths is double the normal descent rate of standard approaches at many other airports. When flying so close to terrain and people just a few feet below, the experience can be unnerving for pilots. At Tradewind, pilots are expected to be totally stabilized on the approach by 1,500 feet. The final approach speed must be consistent and flown as specified, based on the reference landing speed (Vref). According to Nick, this is usually about 85 knots in the PC12.
Passing between the two mountains on either side of the approach corridor is known as "coming through the notch." Just before entering the area above the traffic circle, the air often becomes very turbulent from nearby terrain, so pilots are usually able to anticipate airspeed changes. As soon as the pilot is confident that they have the runway made, the power is immediately brought to idle, to ensure there's no little to no extra airspeed and floating.
The landing on Runway 28 may look more tame, but it brings its own set of unique challenges. A left approach to the runway includes starting at roughly 1,000 feet above the runway, close to towers on the surrounding hills below, with a gradual left turning descent between the valley and island. A right approach to the runway includes hugging the side of the island to a short final.
In both cases, aircraft must be stabilized by Eden Rock. Once they pass this point, they're fully committed to the landing. Attempting to go missed past Eden Rock is extremely risky, with rising terrain and highly populated areas on either side of the airport. For many aircraft landing at St. Barths, it would be too difficult to quickly transition out of a landing configuration to have adequate climb performance, considering the terrain. While there is no mandatory policy, pilots say that an attempt to touch down on the runway, or even the adjacent grass, is usually safer than any go-around attempt from this direction.
Pilots must receive a St. Barths checkout from a designated instructor, regardless of whether they're flying into the airport privately or for an air charter service. Tradewind Aviation has two island-approved instructors, one of whom is the company's President, Eric Zipkin.
At Tradewind, only PICs land the airplane at St. Barths. SICs are trained extensively on every approach, landing, and missed procedure, so that they know what the approach is supposed to look like and can give the most assistance in maintaining the PICs situational awareness. Tradewind PICs receive an intensive 2-4 hour checkout flight, with approaches, landings, and missed approaches on both Runway 10 and 28.
Nick explained that at Tradewind, much of the decision-making during operations is left up to the pilots flying. That's why Tradewind puts such a high emphasis on a rigorous training program. St. Barths training isn't standardized to follow a time schedule; it's time-flexible to allow the pilots to become totally comfortable handling the challenges thrown at them by this unique airport.
Coming in fast or unstabilized is a recipe for disaster at St. Barths, so it makes sense that pilots are required to receive training prior to landing there. The procedures, mandatory reporting points, and traffic avoidance require and extra level of attention. Over the past few decades, a number of accidents have resulted from pilots battling the windy conditions and unusual approaches at the Gustaf III Airport. This is what can happen... Here's Your Guide To Flying Go-Arounds
Tradewind Aviation is hiring First Officers and Captains for their Pilatus fleet. In fact, they're looking for 6 more pilots for a class date on January 7th! Headquartered in Oxford Connecticut with operational bases at Westchester County Airport in New York and San Juan International Airport in Puerto Rico, Tradewind operates both on-demand private charter and scheduled service throughout the U.S. and Caribbean. Pilots for Tradewind fly a schedule of 4 days on, 3 days off, salary based. The company currently has about 90 pilots, some of whom rotate between Connecticut and Caribbean operations.
What does it take to become a Tradewind pilot? Check out their hiring page for details and reach out to their team with any questions you may have. Pilots with as little as 500 hours have been considered for First Officer positions, providing they have certain training, certification, and flying experience. If you're looking for a way to build some pretty incredible flight experience in a variety of challenging environments, keep Tradewind on your list.
In the end, "St. Barths does not take super-human flying skills," according to Tradewind Aviation's President Eric Zipkin. It's certainly an airport that requires special attention and focus, but with the right training, you could be flying into St. Barths yourself.
What do you think? How would you like to fly into this unique airport? Tell us in the comments below.
Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, commercially licensed pilot with multi-engine and instrument ratings, and a commercial aviation student at the University of North Dakota. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. Swayne's experience ranges from international flights in a King Air F90 to ferrying a 1943 Grumman Widgeon across the country. You can reach Swayne at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.