(CNN) — Flying into Saba isn’t for the faint hearted. The vertiginous slopes and sea cliffs of this five-square-mile island in the Caribbean don’t leave much space to land a plane. But Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, clinging to Saba’s only bit of flat land, is proof that it can be done.
With a strip of asphalt just 1,300 feet long (about 400 meters), only 900 feet of which are “usable,” the runway is not much longer than an aircraft carrier.
Sheer drops into the sea at either end add an extra layer of excitement to the arrival on what is acknowledged as being the shortest commercial runway in the world.
The runway appears on one of Saba’s postage stamps, and the souvenir shop in the village of Windwardside sells T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “I survived the Saba landing!”
You could take the ferry to get here, but the flight often appears in lists of the “world’s scariest landings,” and that seems reason enough to give it a try.
But is it really as hair-raising as it’s made out to be?
An elite class of pilot
The 15-minute flights from Sint Maarten are on 19-seater de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters, STOL (short takeoff and landing) utility aircraft designed to serve challenging airports and stop quickly, an advantage that becomes obvious once the wheels touch down on Saba.
It takes an elite group of specially trained pilots to fly into the island, with Sint Maarten-based Winair the only airline operating scheduled flights in and out.
Veteran aviator Captain Roger Hodge is Winair’s Twin Otter fleet instructor, and has trained every one of them. “Once a guy has been fully trained and we’re satisfied, we radio into operations that another Top Gun is born. That’s what we call them,” he says.
Before boarding, I ask him what to expect on the 15-minute flight. “May the Lord be with you,” he says solemnly, before laughing and telling me that I’m going to enjoy it, and to sit on the right to see the wings brush the mountainside on final approach. Already I feel my heart beating faster.
“Flying into Saba gets kind of hairy sometimes, but by knowing what to do, we make it look simple and calm,” says Hodge.
Those hairy situations involve the usual aviation emergency scenarios such as engine failure on approach, but there are other considerations due to the shortness of the runway and its downward slope. There are weight and wind speed limitations, too. The same goes for rain. If the landing strip is wet, no one is flying in. On a runway this short, there’s no room for error.
“As a pilot I just love going into Saba because that’s when you put your experience to work,” he says. “There’s always adrenaline that kicks in because you’re being watched by passengers and people on the ground, but you’ve just got to fly that machine.”
An aerial adventure
In spite of the impending excitement, boarding at Sint Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport is a fairly relaxed affair.
There’s no assigned seating so aviation fans looking for a pilot’s eye view should squeeze in first to nab the hot seat — 1B — right at the front in the middle. With no door separating the cockpit from the cabin, it’s like sitting between the Captain and the First Officer.
Sint Maarten’s green mountains, golden beaches and turquoise waters make for a scenic departure, but there’s 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 visible on the horizon just 24 miles away. There’s constant activity in the cockpit, flicking of switches and twisting of knobs and dials, with both pilots working in perfect coordination.
As the miles quickly fall away, the island looms closer and closer. And closer. It’s incredibly beautiful but also lump-in-the-throat stuff, and there’s a moment when it feels as if you’re heading straight for the volcanic slopes.
But at the very last minute, the plane makes a sharp bank to the left in the direction of the runway which, until this point, has been invisible. Passengers on the right-hand side have close-up views of the sea cliffs. Passengers on the left look straight down into the water.
As the plane levels out for final approach the wing practically skims the hillside, but the aircraft comes in low and smooth and touches down with a squeak of rubber, a huge blast of reverse thrust, and a short taxi to the very end of the runway where those who still have their eyes open can peer down into the water below.
Scary? Yes. Worth it? Definitely.
Bringing the island out of isolation
The first pilot to land on Saba must have had an even more exciting experience.
Ambitious aviator Rémy de Haenen from the neighboring island of St Barthélemy made the island’s first landing in 1959. Many nearby islands already had airstrips built during World War II, but Saba’s steep sides and lack of flat ground were considered unsuitable.
But de Haenen challenged the idea, surveying the topography and eventually identifying the aptly named Flat Point as the most promising site for his attempt to pilot the first flight into Saba.
Saban historian Will Johnson’s father used to farm Flat Point on ground owned by his grandfather. “My father gave permission to clear out the land, and he must have figured that if the attempt didn’t succeed, at least all the rocks would be gone,” he says.
A former island commissioner, senator and publisher of the Saba Herald newspaper for 25 years, Johnson’s knowledge of the island is encyclopaedic. He says that when the decision had been made to give it a try, within a couple of weeks and with little equipment other than “one or two wheelbarrows,” the land had been cleared and flattened, ready for the attempted landing.
Plenty of people on the island still remember de Haenen landing his Dornier Do-27 on the newly cleared stretch of land on February 9, 1959. “Everybody came out, crowds and crowds of people. It was amazing,” says James Franklin Johnson, a mountain guide for the Saba Conservation Foundation who was eight years old at the time. “Saba came out of isolation when the plane landed on the island.”
But de Haenen’s landing didn’t ignite an immediate flurry of aviation activity. He was banned from repeating his landing due to safety issues, and it wasn’t until 1963 that Saba had its own fully functioning airport.
A final burst of adrenaline
Most of Saba’s aviation hype revolves around the landing, but the island reserves a final burst of adrenaline for those departing by air. The imaginatively named main road, The Road, offers the perfect vantage point for views of the airport, and the brave may want to watch a flight taking off before their own departure. The plane uses the entire length of the runway, at the very last minute lifting off when there’s practically no ground left.
Starting from the very end, the plane speeds down the runway, coming closer and closer to the end, and for a moment it seems to drop off towards the water, before a whoosh propels the plane — and its very relieved passengers — skywards.
It may be a badge of honor to say you’ve survived the Saba landing, but the thrill of the take-off from Juancho E. Yrausquin airport deserves its own place in the world’s scariest rankings.