Watch WestJet make a rather low approach into St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana airport

Bradley Wint
Mar 11, 2017 6:11pm AST
Photo: Photo: ATCpilot/YouTube

If you’re an aviation enthusiast, you may have heard about WestJet’s rather low approach into St. Maarten earlier this week.

On March 7th, WestJet operated flight 2652 from Toronto-Pearson, in Toronto, Canada to Princess Juliana, St. Maarten.

Weather at the airport (SXM) was not particularly favourable as there were light showers, visibility down to 1.25 miles, and winds were blowing from the north east at 21 knots. There were no reports of gusts though.

When the aircraft banked left to line up for final approach, they found themselves a bit too low and decided to go around.

Here are two videos of the approaches. The first one was clearly too low while the second was text book even in those wet conditions.

Photo: Christine Garner

Based on ATC recordings, the tower made mention that the pilots decided to go around a bit too late, even though they did not advise the crew of previous warnings of low visibility from other pilots that landed shortly before.

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The WestJet pilots landed 45 minutes later when weather conditions were much more suited for their liking.

WestJet themselves say that the aircraft was not in any immediate danger, even though this aviation journalist claims otherwise. According to alleged analysis by a Boeing 737 pilot with over 20,000 hours of flying experience, he guesses that the aircraft was as low as 50 feet before the pilots throttled up to go around.

“I’ll put money on the fact that jet was at 50 feet,” a 737 captain who flies the same aircraft for another U.S. airline told me. “To be that low and not over the runway is downright dangerous.” he said. A captain at an international airline with 20,000 flight hours, who also saw the photo concurred. “It’s quite apparent that aircraft is within half a wingspan of the water.  You can tell by the jet blast trail in the water, the yellow buoy in the water, and the white little building on the cliff. ”

It’s hard to determine how low the aircraft really was as Flightaware data only records as low as 500 feet before touchdown at SXM, while Flightradar24 showed calibrated data of 0 feet at the point of the go-around.

The decision to go-around was pretty late based on the different photo and video angles we’ve seen so far, but we suspect wind shear may have had a part to play as well.

At the end of the day, the pilots opted to go around rather than risking the landing at such a low altitudes. Most of the articles and videos about this approach clearly blow the situation out of proportion.

Maybe if this occurrence had taken place with another regular WS Boeing 737, it may not have gotten that much attention, but it was a bit of bad luck that the airline decided to use their Disney’s Frozen themed aircraft to fly the route that day.

Photo: WestJet

*Update* – WestJet chimes in!

WestJet has released an official statement regarding last week’s St. Maarten go-around, calling out some of the media attention as “irresponsible”, an adjective that we can fully agree with.

Reference was made to the so-called aviation and travel journalist’s story that sparked most of the discussion.

Video and photos of the missed approached spawned articles with unfortunate and frankly, irresponsible headlines such as, “Near Miss” and “WestJet denies close call caught on camera at St. Maarten,” with some even speculating on a potential disaster that was averted.

We think it’s important to share with you what a missed approach means and how this “near miss” was anything but.

Every day our pilots safely land some 700 flights throughout our network of more than 100 destinations in over 20 different countries, many of which have unique weather and terrain. Occasionally a landing will be aborted and a missed approach initiated if the pilots determine it’s the best option. In this case, our crew experienced rapidly changing weather conditions and as a result descended below the normal glide path on the approach to the landing. The crew recognized the situation, and the regularly trained and desired outcome was obtained – a safe missed approach to a safe landing.

There can be any number of reasons why a go-around could be made. Weather or runway conditions may be less than ideal, or there may be other aircraft still on, or in the vicinity of, the runway. Regardless of the reason, pilots are trained to initiate a missed approach without hesitation, and go-arounds like the one executed last week at SXM – while not something we do every day – are also not uncommon. Relying on their skill, training and experience, our pilots who landed our Boeing 737-800 at SXM last week made the right call, and the process worked the way in which it’s intended.

All situations like this will have a fulsome review with learnings applied. Perspective is always helpful when you’re looking at a photo or video, or reading or hearing something in the news. Thanks for visiting our blog to get ours.

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