“Cool and unsafe are not the same, says Eric Zipkin, President of Tradewind Aviation. “Mutually exclusive in fact.”
He’s referring to the famed landing at the airport in St. Barth, a 650-meter (2100 foot) runway welcoming visitors to the island. "There's no doubt about it, it looks cool," he says. "It restores the romance of flying, something that has been lost in air travel. You're in a small plane, you can see the pilots, and there is a lot of flying going on in the last minutes of the day.
Yet contrary to all the chaff found on the Internet, he also says it’s just as safe as any other landing in the Caribbean, or the world for that matter. The reason: a versatile aircraft that’s truly perfect for the job.
Tradewind flies the Pilatus PC-12 to St. Barth, scheduled from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Antigua, St Thomas, and private from points farther away—"we eliminate the immigration rigmarole in St. Maarten," he says. (St. Maarten was traditionally considered the main gateway to St. Barth.)
"It's the plane for the mission," says Zipkin, referring to St. Barth's short-field runway and distinctive landing: A steep glide (the angle depends on the wind) in order to clear the notch in the 150-foot hill right behind the runway, a quick down-slope flight at about 10 feet above ground, then a sharp pull-up and touch down.
Zipkin trains Tradewind St. Barth pilots himself: two days of ground training and five-to-10 hours of flight training. "St. Barth is not a carrier landing," he says, contradicting a phrase common on the Internet.
The PC-12 is designed for just such challenges. In fact, it was designed for challenges far more taxing than landing on St. Barth—like North Slope oil fields and southern African game lodges, with all of their attendant drawbacks (extreme weather, maintenance hours away). In comparison, the Tradewind itinerary is a breeze.
What’s more, despite needing only one pilot on the PC-12, Tradewind uses two pilots on all of its flights. This not only allows pilots to cross-check each other, it also gives the pilot not flying the route a chance to service the cabin.
The PC-12 is equipped with a wing that produces a great deal of lift, meaning it is meant to land at low speeds, an advantage in St. Barth. "Close to the ground the PC-12 is operating at highway speeds," says Zipkin. It also gets off a short-field runway quickly.
"St. Barth does not take super-human flying skills," Zipkin says—referring to the sensationalist Internet videos about the landing—and says that one of the biggest challenges for a pilot is managing the distraction of tourists who gather on the hill crest to watch the landing.
If you go, you'll probably end up on the hill at least once, too. It's part of the island's romance, and unlike almost everything else on St. Barth, the thrill is free.