Award-winning Marlborough Express photographer Derek Flynn is also an aviation buff and decided this year to visit a small Caribbean island where the big jets come to land just metres above the beach. The unusual sight, and the jet blasts as the planes take off again, has become a tourist attraction on the island.
Ever since a work colleague recounted his time at Cape Canaveral watching a Space Shuttle launch, I have wanted to see that spectacle myself.
Alas with the retirement of the shuttle programme, and the Concorde to boot, the must-see list for aviation fans has diminished somewhat.
However, there is one place in the world where you can experience something truly unique . . . so there was nothing for it. I had to go to Maho.
You might imagine the arrival of royalty is announced with a trumpet fanfare, but as I sit at the Sunset Bar on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, the arrival of "the queen of the skies" (a Boeing 747) is heralded by the crackle of air traffic control talking to the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines pilot.
The speakers hung around the beach bar broadcast the air traffic communications from the control tower so the patrons know when the big commercial jets are on final approach to the stunning Princess Julianna Airport.
The plane-spotters with cameras in hand soon take their vantage points on the beach as the big blue Boeing appears as a speck on the horizon. A couple of minutes later it swoops down over Maho Beach and the Sunset Bar in an awe-inspiring display of power from the four Rolls Royce engines.
In a blast of jet thrust and aviation fumes, the beachgoers are treated to one of the most unusual experiences in aviation as the aircraft flies just metes above their heads. The KLM is the star of the show at Maho as it is the biggest bird to land on the 2300 metre runway, which is not much longer than Wellington's 2081m.
The Princess is also bordered by the sea at both ends and hemmed in by a mountain range to the east. This means the dozen or so big jets arriving each day have to swoop low over the beach - perhaps only 12 metres or so at the fence - to land safely.
Tammy, the barmaid at the Sunset, writes the arrival times of the "big heavies" on the surfboard propped up near the bar. These are the Airbus 340s, the Boeing 737s and 757s. The board is a gathering point and menu of sorts for the planespotters from around the globe who make the pilgrimage to this aviation mecca.
The icing on the cake is the unscheduled military movements and private jets that roar in fairly regularly without warning, keeping the beachgoers entertained throughout the day.
The tradition among the more "lubricated" patrons on the beach is to cling to the fence while the big jets spool up their engines for takeoff on the relatively short runway. The jet blast blows sand and debris straight on to the beach and people are knocked off their feet and into the water.
Legend has it that a van was blown into the sea when an Air France Concorde took off from the Princess after a visit by French president Francois Mitterrand in 1989. It is also rumoured that it was an Air France jet that once clipped the boundary fence earning the airline the nickname "Air Fence".
There are plenty of signs warning tourists of the danger of the jet blast yet there seems to be little enforcement by the authorities.
During my four-day stay, police appeared only once, to take the details of a fence rider who they promptly let go without charge. Amusingly he was a pilot and had flown a small commuter plane in that day before joining the fun on the beach.
There are rumours that the authorities might try to shut the road or ban people from the beach. The airport authorities will no doubt face increasing pressure to keep people away from one of the last great picture shows in global aviation.
In the mean time aviation enthusiasts can continue to romance the Princess, and let's hope the sun never sets on Maho Beach.
- © Fairfax NZ News