Tourists love getting up close to the jets that fly into Princess Juliana International Airport in St Maarten.
Tourists love getting up close to the jets that fly into Princess Juliana International Airport in St Maarten. Supplied

Beach tragedy is a grim reminder: ‘Jet blast’ is no joke

IT'S not just a bunch of hot air.

Jet blast, or the powerful release of steamy air from an accelerating aeroplane, can be dangerous - and even deadly.

Making headlines this week, the most recent tragedy is 57-year-old New Zealander Gayleen McEwan, who was blown off her feet by the blast from a Boeing 737 departing St. Maarten for Trinidad.

McEwan, who was holidaying on the Caribbean island, hit her head on nearby rocks and succumbed to her injuries shortly after.

Jet blast is no joke. Especially prevalent during takeoff, those hot winds can exceed 322km/h, David Mendal, chairman of Ultimate Jet Vacations and a commercial pilot of 25 years, told the New York Post.

"When hot air exits the engine, it expands very quickly, creating thrust," he said.

When it comes to jet-blast tourism, Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten (where McEwan was killed) poses a particular problem.

Visitors flock to airport-adjacent Maho Beach to photograph low-flying aircraft despite posted signs that warn visitors of the jet-blast effects.

The runway is particularly short, and the airport is sandwiched between mountains and the beach, causing planes to ascend and descend close to gathered crowds.

Tourists gather as jet takes off at St Maartin airport

A YouTube video of Maho Beach posted in 2014 depicts the scene. In it, a throng of swimsuit-clad tourists gather under blue skies to witness a bonkers windstorm that ruffles their trunks. Grabbing onto a warped chain-link fence, these daredevils wanted to experience the jet blast of a departing Delta aircraft, which propelled some of them into the water.

While those thrillseekers shared a laugh at the end of the 10-second jet blast they experienced, McEwan wasn't so lucky.

Also known as "fence surfing," the danger here doesn't solely lie in the plane-generated winds, but also with runway debris they can kick up.

"That's going to hit somebody very hard," said Mendal, who has flown in and out of Princess Juliana airport multiple times. "Imagine a stone at 200 miles per hour [322km/h]."

While it is rare that people die from jet blasts, there have been plenty of injuries.

Last year, the jet blast of a plane departing the Greek island of Skiathos for England struck onlookers with sand, stones and other debris - before they ran for cover.

In 2015, three tourists were hospitalised from the jet blast of an Air New Zealand aircraft taking off from the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. The tourists were knocked to the ground - one was left unconscious.

Not even the shield of a vehicle can keep people safe. In 2015, a father and son were driving in a van down a public road by the Iqalquit International Airport in northern Canada when the jet blast of a military cargo plane blew out their windows.

"I was aware at the time, luckily, so I had a bit of time to react, was able to turn my head and cover my face," the son, Hasan Mahmoud, told the CBC.

Mendal's advice is simple: Stay away from a jet blast. There's fun to be had elsewhere.

This article originally appeared on the New York Post and was reproduced with permission.