From the balcony of my hotel room on Maho Bay, I could watch planes landing and taking off from the St. Maarten airport. Jets and prop planes came in low over the turquoise water, crossed a narrow strip of beach and touched down on the runway across the street from the sand. It was a form of entertainment, second-guessing the pilots and their landing technique. And that beach, I realized, might be the closest you could get to watch takeoffs and landings from -- in the world.
Then one day I noticed a group of people taking this form of entertainment seriously. As a jet taxied into position for take-off, they lined up on the sand behind the airplane, at the top of a shallow embankment that dropped to the water. When the jet's engines revved, sand whirled up and filled the air. The people standing at the top of the embankment were pushed backwards by the jet blast, so that they slid as if on skis to the water's edge.
Nearby, the Sunset Bar seemed to be the unofficial headquarters for this activity. On an upended surfboard, someone had written the times of every flight scheduled to land that busy Saturday afternoon. Eight jets were lined up at the gates at that hour, plenty of opportunities for this game.
Then I noticed the camera crew and a flier that said they were taping footage for a new show on Discovery about people doing weird things. Yes, I thought, it is weird for people to deliberately stand where they can get hit by jet blast and a stinging curtain of sand. Go to YouTube.com, search for st maarten airport blast, and you can see for yourself — including a recent incident where the jet blast was so powerful that it blew a teenage girl loose from the fence she was hanging onto and sent her stumbling across the street where she hit her head. I’d understand better if there was a reward for this particular risky behavior, like the thrill of free fall that comes with skydiving or bungee jumping. But when the reward is sand in my eyes? No thanks.
Now, to the whine of a jet engine, a plane backed away from the terminal and turned onto the taxiway. People began to take positions. Some lined up against the chain-link fence at the end of the runway, standing in front of the signs that warned people could be injured or even killed by jet blast. Others lined up on the sand across the street, their phones and cameras raised.
I stood off to the side, outside the jet blast zone delineated by paint on the guardrail. The jet engines revved, a mild blast of hot air hit me, and a small spout of sand whirled around my legs, stinging my exposed ankles. Both were milder than what hit people standing within the jet blast zone. Their shirts flew up or whipped around their midsections, and they hid their faces against the flying sand.
The plane roared away, and the thrill-seeking was over for the moment. But there would be at least seven more jet takeoffs that afternoon. Plenty of sand and hot air to go around.