Whether you’re a plane-obsessed #avgeek or just someone who finds the world of aviation entertaining, there are some experiences that you should not miss. When travel returns to some semblance of normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic, there are quite a few adventures that should make up your airplane-themed bucket list.
The incredible approach and landing into airports like Paro, Bhutan, and Lukla, Nepal, are unforgettable, nail-biting adventures. Flying into St. Helena, the remote island in the Atlantic Ocean that gained fame for hosting Napoleon during his exile, is another: Strong winds can make landing on its cliff-facing runway a challenge.
The island hopper
United Airlines flies one of the world’s most beautiful “milk-run” routes — flights that make multiple stops along the way, often serving as a lifeline to smaller cities. While many airlines offer such routes (Alaska Airlines offers a cooler-temperature version of its own), United’s “Island Hopper” route, with a history dating back to 1968, is an experience like no other.
It connects Honolulu with Guam while making intermediate stops at islands across Micronesia. The stops are Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Chuuk. Each island provides stunning scenery as the plane approaches the runways, some of which are short and require fire trucks to be standing by in the event of an emergency.
What makes flights like these important is that they are often the primary means for travel from these secluded destinations, and they bring vital goods like mail and cargo to locals. It is common for flight attendants to recognize many of their passengers from week to week.
This route involves an entire day of flying — it crosses the international date line, so when flying westbound you land on a different day than when you took off. And though it may seem like a chore to some, flying this route is a dream of aviation geeks looking to experience six takeoffs and six landings in the same day with stunning scenery.
Tickets for this beautiful route can be expensive, but MileagePlus members can redeem miles for the experience. Since United stopped publishing award charts, it’s difficult to know exactly how many miles are needed for a flight. But on the random date in September that we checked, it is available for 27,500 miles one way in economy class. The flight doesn’t make all five stops every day (you do want to maximize the experience, don’t you?). For those not interested in the island hopper, there’s also a nonstop.
Landing on the beach
The exact position and use of the beach runway depends on the tide, and often airport staff must check the sand for debris or sea animals that may be in the way. Touching down on the firm sand and splashing through puddles while the plane taxis to the small terminal building is certainly different from other airports.
It is possible to fly from Glasgow and spend just a short while in the small terminal before returning (others may choose to spend the night on Barra). Don’t be surprised if you recognize some of the travelers on your return journey, as it is common for people to make day trips for the beach landing experience.
World’s shortest commercial flight
Another Scottish island group has its own aviation fan experience: In the Orkneys, travelers can experience the world’s shortest commercial flight, which lasts about 90 seconds. The Loganair flight goes between Westray and Papa Westray. Locals tell us that passengers at one airport can see when the flight takes off from across the neighboring island, which is so close that they know when it’s time to pick up loved ones from an arriving flight.
Final-dip approach into St. Barts
Considered among the most dangerous airports in the world, given surrounding terrain and a short runway, the approach and arrival into St. Barts is an experience to remember.
Views on the descent into SBH airport are mostly of the Caribbean Sea and surrounding islands, but once over land, the plane clears a hill at low altitude, then takes a nosedive to touch down on the airport’s short runway. It is a thrilling approach and certainly not for the faint of heart.
Hold onto your hats plane spotting in St. Martin
Just a short distance from St. Barts in the Caribbean Sea is the island of St. Martin and Princess Juliana International Airport. Nearby Maho Beach is widely known as a hotspot for watching planes come in for a landing mere feet above the heads of sunbathers on the sand. There are countless videos on YouTube of the surreal experience, many of them are featured on the airport’s website.
Even more daring are the people who stand on the beach (many used to stand at the fence where you would have to hold on) when planes take off. The engine thrust produces an incredible wind that knocks you over, even if you stand across the road on the beach!
Getting to St. Martin isn’t difficult using miles and points. A wide range of airlines fly there, including all the major North American carriers and international airlines like Air France, Copa and KLM.
For now, satisfy your aviation cravings at the TWA Hotel
Even with travel plans on hold due to the global pandemic, you don’t have to let your aviation dreams fade. The TWA Hotel at New York’s JFK airport remains open, and while there may be fewer planes taking off from the airport, the interior design retains its retro-chic, airline-themed look. It’s like stepping back in time recalling the glamorous age of air travel that, these days, many of us long to return to.
Photos courtesy of Ramsey Qubein and TWA Hotel/David Mitchell.
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