I peeked out the window and could see red tiled roofs nestled in the tree-dotted hills as we approached the small Caribbean island of St. Barth. I was barely forming the thought that we seemed to be coming very close to the hill when we quickly dipped down and our wheels touched the short airstrip at Gustaf III Airport in St. Jean.
I got an even closer view of the water as it was just feet from our plane. It was my first trip with Tradewind Aviation, an experience that felt like I was flying on my own private plane.
Once on the ground, it was just a few minutes before all eight passengers walked off the plane into the gentle winds of St. Barth. We lined up at the customs desk, got our passports stamped then waited for our bags, a smooth and painless process.
My first introduction to Tradewind Aviation was when I stepped off my flight from Fort Lauderdale and was met at the gate in San Juan at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport by a young man holding a sign with my name. I always get a special thrill when I see a person with my name on a sign as it means I have someone on my side to navigate the sometimes stressful side of travel. For an additional fee, guests can add this “VIP Meet and Greet” service in San Juan.
One thing I didn’t have to worry about was getting through customs. Most people traveling from the United States to St. Barth first fly to St. Martin. They go through customs at Princess Juliana International Airport and then again when they land in St. Barth. Tradewind Aviation travels from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where it’s not necessary for U.S. citizens to go through customs.
Related story: Hotel Manapany: Luxury Ecolodge on St. Barth
Theodore introduced himself, then asked me what I weigh. I had to chuckle at the question that few people ever dare to ask, but knew he had a good reason for asking. The amount of weight and its distribution is a serious matter when it comes to flying safely on small planes. I answered him honestly, which may or may not be the same as the number on my driver’s license. He then walked me through the airport to the lounge and got me checked in for my flight.
Located on the second floor of the airport, the lounge was quiet and had plenty of seating, free wifi and several outlets to charge my devices. Snacks and drinks are available on a self-serve basis.
When our flight was ready to board we all passed through scanners and boarded the Pilatus PC-12 plane. I was last to board so had the seat in the back, right by the cooler of drinks and box of snacks in case I hadn’t indulged enough in the lounge.
I was happy to see we had two pilots up front, a policy of the airlines even though only one is required. I have experienced claustrophobia in certain, weird places, like the St. Louis Gateway Arch. Not in the tiny capsules that take you slowly up 630 feet to the top, but in the narrow space where you can look out over the Mississippi River. Last time I went I took one look outside, told my family I was leaving and took the next tram down.
So I had some concerns about feeling closed in on the small plane, but had no issues at all. I could relax and enjoy the flight, watching a Netflix show I had downloaded on my iPad. On the return flight we did hit some turbulence as we approached San Juan, which always unnerves me a bit despite knowing it doesn’t indicate a problem but it didn’t last long. If you don’t have reading or watching material, enjoy the Tradewind Aviation’s Goodspeed Magazine, tucked in your seat pocket.
I didn’t know at the time, but this airport is considered one of the most challenging in the world to land a plane due to the steep angle and runway of only 2,100 feet. One day we were returning to our accommodations at Hotel Manapany and just happened to be on the roundabout when a plane was approaching. We asked our driver to stop, we hopped out and filmed the landing. I saw up again how close the planes come to the ground. A challenge, indeed.
Here’s a good place to point out that I don’t have a lot of experience on private planes, having flown on one just twice. I was invited to visit a quail plantation in south Georgia along with a few other journalists. I was the only female and didn’t have a lot to contribute to the dinner where the cigar-smoking, scotch-sipping gentlemen traded stories about their hunting conquests and I waited until I considered a polite amount of time before retreating to the comfort of my bedroom. But the trip and journey to see the culture of a quail plantation was worth it.
We were flown down and back in a small plane with cushy leather seats and adult alcoholic beverages flowing. However, we hit a storm on our return flight and our small plane was bouncing like a tennis ball in the sky with zero visibility out the windows. While a crash felt imminent to me I chastised myself for not eating dessert the night before, then felt guilty for shallow thoughts during what could be my last moments. Our flight was diverted from our original destination to a closer airport and we landed safely.
Other than that, the only private plane knowledge I have is from TV and movies, where either Very Important People in government talk tensely over Very Important Situations while someone stands over them looking very concerned or rock stars lounge and swill Champagne while issuing impossible demands.
It’s the ease of the travel experience – checking in, security, boarding, getting off the plane – that I compare favorably to the private plane experience.
Other Destinations You Can Fly to with Tradewind Aviation
Tradewind Aviation was founded in 2001 by Eric and David Zipkin, brothers who were both private pilots before founding the company. Eric, who is president while David is vice president, worked for a charter company and spotted an underserved market on the New York to Nantucket route. They added destinations in the Caribbean, with St. Barth being their favorite.
In a story about them on the company’s blog, they relate how they were able to help out during natural disasters, which include an earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and Hurricane Irma in 2017, which caused massive damage in Puerto Rico and St. Barth. In Haiti they were able to deliver supplies to the epicenter of the earthquake. And one day after Hurricane Irma hit, they were in the Caribbean coordinating relief flights and evacuating people from the island.
Tradewind Aviation also has service to Anguilla and Nevis, out of San Juan, St. Thomas and Antiqua with its fleet of Pilatus PC-12s and Citation CJ3s. It has interline agreements with United Airlines and British Airways so you can travel with one reservation if you book flights on those airlines.
The airline operates in the Northeast with daily trips to Nantucket from New York and White Plains, from April to early December, and to Martha’s Vineyard from May to December.
It’s free to check luggage and pets and ski equipment travel free. Regular travelers can save money by purchasing ticket books, starting with a 10-ticket package or by joining the loyalty program, Tradewind Rewards, to accumulate points for free flights.
Tradewind also offers a charter service and just introduced a program for frequent charter flyers, the Goodspeed card, which offers discounts for 10-40 hours of flying time.
– Jan Schroder, Editor in chief