Sint Maarten is one of the only places in the world where you can feel the full force of a jet engine against your face. With its runway just meters from a tourist beach, Princess Juliana Airport has become the home of a unique adrenaline sport known locally as “riding the fence”.
Princess Juliana Airport
Located on the Dutch side of St. Martin Island, Princess Juliana Airport serves as the main hub for the small Caribbean territory. With one active runway, and a single terminal equipped with four jet bridges, the airport is humble in size, however, it regularly receives large aircraft such as Boeing 747 or Airbus A340.
What makes Princess Juliana so special is the opportunity to see these aircraft fly less than 100ft above your head. With a short runway of only 2,180m, planes are forced to approach at a low altitude, passing close to a tourist beach that backs onto the airport. It’s been described as the world’s “best” and “scariest” location for plane spotting. But whilst spotters are interested in aircraft landings, adrenaline junkies are more interested in when the planes will take off.
Riding the Fence
“Riding the Fence” is a local ritual on Maho beach, located just behind runway 10. Tourists and thrill-seekers grip the fence behind the aircraft take-off spot and hang on for dear life as they get blasted by the jets of departing planes. Sometimes, if they can’t hold on, they’ll get thrown backwards onto the beach or even into the water, which is only a short distance from the fence.
Signs posted around the area alert tourists of the danger of the activity. They warn that standing in the jet blast can “cause severe physical harm resulting in extreme bodily harm and/or death”. A cursory look at some of the fence-riding videos on YouTube quickly confirms these claims. The concrete road between the fence and the beach seems to be an especially hazardous area.
Whether visitors take these signs seriously or not is another matter. Sellers on sites like Etsy sell novelty copies of the famous danger warnings. The activity is so popular among tourists that the bars in Sint Maarten even have boards listing aircraft departure times.
Death at Maho Beach
In 2017, a New Zealand Tourist was killed by a jet blast when they lost their grip on the fence and were thrown to the ground, hitting their head on the concrete. The 57-year-old woman sustained serious injuries from the impact and died shortly afterwards in the hospital.
Sint Maarten police spokesman Ricardo Henson told The Washington Post that it was the first death at Airport but noted there had been a number of injuries as a result of tourists riding the fence. He said the police do not have an official number of how many injuries have occurred at Maho Beach.
Following the tragic accident, extra measures were put in place to reduce the risk of further injuries. A second fence was installed a few meters behind the original, though locals we talked to say this has done very little to stop the practice. Even a few extra meters back, the blast is still plenty strong enough to attract thrill-seekers, and still strong enough to cause injuries.
Would you still ride the fence at Princess Juliana Airport? Let us know in the comments below!