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"The Hill"

Flying the hair-raising approach to St. Barts

By Don Peterson

I had my behind handed to me today.

Photography by Don Peterson.
Zoomed image
Photography by Don Peterson.

Many pilots have watched videos of the occasional carnage at St. Barts. Fatalities are rare, but the scrap aluminum accumulates. I earned my initial permit to land at Gustaf III/St. Barthélemy Airport (TFFJ) in St. Barts in December 1986, and I still have the antiquated green card taped inside my logbook. My father lived a 25-minute flight away, on Nevis, and for more than 20 years I made regular trips to the Leeward Islands in my 1964 Mooney. There was never a mention of the landing permit having an expiration date, so I came and went as I pleased. Recently I heard that a periodic renewal is now required. So, for giggles, I decided to submit myself to the presumed cursory examination.

St. Barts can be landed either direction, Runway 10 or 28. The former is the approach most often found in videos, presenting an aircraft crossing low over a ridge top, practically bouncing a tire off a car or tourist’s head, then steeply down the hill face, floating above the descending-slope runway, a brief touchdown, smoking brakes, onto the beach, then tipping over, or going into the ocean. That the relevant beach is a French clothes-optional zone is not the only, nor best, reason to stop.

My initial checkride in 1986 was something of a farce. I flew to Princess Juliana International Airport (TNCM), the commercial air-carrier field for St. Martin, roamed the air-side unchallenged until I found a local pilot who was empowered to check me out, and off we went. The wind favored Runway 28, so we made three full-stop landings on the unobstructed, upward-sloping runway, taking off in the opposite direction, and called it a day. There was no check of my skills coming over the infamous ridgetop leading to Runway 10, nor any discussion of it. Perhaps he trusted survival instincts to teach the rest.

Runway 28 is not without risk, however. Newer charts note, “no go-around after crossing runway threshold.” There is steeply rising terrain everywhere, so if you want to wave off do it before crossing the beach. Despite the less than strenuous checkout, all my subsequent arrivals were via The Hill. While challenging, good airspeed control and a steady hand got the job done.

Before leaving the United States in 2023, I noted the AOPA Caribbean Pilot Guide offered a short list of approved St. Barts check pilots. I picked the first one, Maxime Desouches, had a lively phone conversation, and made an appointment for a coming Saturday in October.

A couple days before our arrival into the Grand Case/Espérance Airport, a small strip on the opposite end of St. Martin from Princess Juliana International, I touched base with Desouches. He gradually recalled that we had an appointment and used this last-minute conversation to brief me on the costs. Including his shuttle flight from St. Barts, where he lived, to Grand Case, the total in Euros was equal to $700 U.S. Gulp. I had just completed a flight review and instrument proficiency check that took the better part of five hours and cost only $300. I was having trouble buying into a $700 checkride comprising three quick landings. I was an old pro at Barts, after all. Oh well.

We met up at the Grand Case airport. We had a rapid but thorough briefing of what we were about to do, with my wife, Maria, to be in the back seat filming, and later in the advisory-only tower getting some different angles.

Desouches produced a small chart that displayed the recommended approaches and reporting points. He expressed his doubt many times that a Mooney was a suitable airplane for Barts, but I oozed confidence, sure that my 30-plus years here had prepared me for a little dusting-off ride.

There was only a slight wind at the early hour of our takeoff from Grand Case. Barts now has three defined VFR-only approaches, one for Runway 10 and two for Runway 28. We tackled 10 first: “The Hill.” The infamous ridge blocks the view of the runway until one is close, with the first appearance of the pavement being the moment to commit to the final, steep approach.

One aims for as low over the hill crest as nerves can stand.Remembering my previous arrivals, I had the airplane slowed to around 65 to 66 mph, in high-drag profile, full flaps and foot-to-the wall slip, controlling descent rate with throttle. Approaching the crest of the hill with a public road underneath carrying cars, bicyclists, and hikers, I slowed further to about 63 to 64 mph. At this point, my airplane goes well behind the power curve, the stall warning bleeps and splutters, and the descent rate becomes exciting. Desouches confirmed I was using the correct “parachuting” technique. We touched down in the first 200 feet of hard surface and were making a reversing turn not much past the halfway point. To be blunt, one aims for as low over the hill crest as nerves can stand and trusts the humanity underneath to do their part of the job by ducking. Two more approaches were roughly the same, but I was aware of fading brake pads.

After the last takeoff from Runway 10 we briefed the coming right-hand approach to 28. By this time there was an increased wind favoring 10, but Desouches explained that 28 is often used with a tailwind for reasons that would soon be explained. The westerly facing runway is uphill, which generally defeats a fair amount of tailwind. Small outlying islands are used as checkpoints to announce turning base and final, with the latter being at quite an angle to the runway. St. Barts is a lumpy and curvaceous island, so a significant mass of rocky outcropping dictates the angled approach. The moment when one can turn to align with the runway is not long before the last-chance go-around point. Decision time. I had not paid full attention to Desouches’s guidance about countering the crosswind, so there were some last-minute corrections that seemed to make him fidget. Two more right-hand approaches dialing in the required corrections, and we were off to learn the left-hand approaches.

The downwind for a left approach to 28 is made on the southeast side of the island. Nothing can be seen of the runway or its environment. My instructor walked me through the base turn, describing a white house that would soon appear (his mother’s) at which point I was to hasten my descent, barely crossing the roof. After buzzing his mom, we turned hard left to enter the previously explored angled final approach. The turn had my wing tip close to houses, rocks, and trees, rolling level just after making the quick correcting right turn at the massive boulder to align with the centerline. As I was to eventually learn, the choice of right or left approach is based upon the amount of crosswind. If the wind is northerly, the left approach is preferred to take advantage of the crossing wind to keep a tight turn radius to final. If the wind is from the south, the right pattern gives us the same benefit. A tailwind on either base can increase the turn-to-final radius, creating a challenge to align with the runway, or avoiding the jagged rock wall intruding into the extended final. By this time, I was sweating.

After the last landing on 28, we dropped off Maria and took her up to the tower where she could take photos and videos of my rediscovered brilliance landing on 10. Desouches muttered something about the wind from the east having picked up. Good, I thought. Desouches’s English is excellent, but it is inflected with his native French. Sometimes highly focused moments would interrupt my comprehension.

He made a remark on short final that I couldn’t make out. I had things nailed with the horn chirping, but just as we approached the ridge crest above a taxi, and a young lady in a bikini, I entered an area of surprising sink, and did what any life-loving pilot would do, added some power. As soon as the power got a grip, we transitioned to an area of strong lift. Dang! Four seconds later I declared a go-around and off we went. Years earlier I learned that one must come down the hill face as though it were just a steeply inclined extension of the runway. It’s the gomers that float over that part that end up calling their insurance companies. Two more approaches, two more go-arounds. We landed on 28, picked up Maria, and returned to Grand Case for signatures, taunts, reassurances, and bill paying. I was done.

The problem I had just faced is that a gentle headwind to 10 helps. A bit more and the wind rises up the eastern side of the hill facing the runway, then curves over the crest, and dives down attached to the surface of the opposite hillside, maybe dragging the airplane down with it. I now understand that an approach to 10 with much wind must be steeper, hoping to avoid the orthographic descending wind on the westerly face of the hill. Likewise, adding power when I did will generally result in a go-around. The pilot must trust that the descent will be brief and replaced with rising air.

My technique for Barts requires an intimate familiarity with the airplane, and extensive practice at super-slow approaches. The Mooney handbook-recommended approach speed is 80 mph. Full-gross-weight stall, wings level, is 57 mph. The FAA standard recommendation of 1.3 times the stall speed for normal approach would be 74 mph, and short field 1.2 times VS0 at 68.4 mph. To get into a field like Barts requires me to hold about 63 to 64 mph on short final, with full slip. Once stable at this speed and slip, the descent rate can reach 1,000 fpm. In my airplane the stall warning will be voicing its criticism. These speeds also leave no energy reserve for a descent-stopping flare, so as I reach the runway I will either add a touch of power, or preferably just lower the nose at about seven feet to borrow a little speed I’ll use for rounding off in a brief flare. My Mooney also has hydraulic hand-pumped flaps, and a retraction toggle that allows me to smoothly dump them just before touchdown, while simultaneously raising the nose further, hopefully arriving at the runway without banging things. This requires a lot of practice.

While Barts is fun, and worth a visit, operating deep in the drag valley is not something to take lightly. I use variations of this technique on every approach not interrupted by ATC or traffic, so it is a comfortable second nature for me. Often, landing on 28 is just a better plan, even with a tailwind.

With humility restored, I was sure this would be my last visit to Barts. However, I don’t like going out with three go-arounds as my final at-bat.

Don Peterson is a flight instructor and A&P/IA with more than 40 years of flying experience.

Photography by Don Peterson.
Zoomed image
Photography by Don Peterson.
Photography by Don Peterson.
Zoomed image
Photography by Don Peterson.

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