The fear, the fun, and the promise of topless supermodels that come with getting “certificated” to land your airplane on the island of St. Barths tops my list of flying adventures and pushes that incomparable “first solo” into a distant second place. The approach to landing begins as a power-off freefall beginning about 7 miles out over the Caribbean Ocean and climaxes as your landing gear skims 4 feet over circling cars negotiating a round-about atop a hill that towers over the runway’s threshold. Once landed on the tiny airstrip, the turn-around at the end is cut into a magnificent beach where half-naked observers smile at you, photograph you, and frequently offer you a “thumbs-up” welcoming you to the very elite club of pilots who have survived a landing at one of the world’s trickiest places to fly into. St. Barths (St. Barthelemy) is the French-Caribbean winter playground of the richest and the most famous and the most infamous. It’s a place where 200-foot yachts decorated with both helipads and onboard submarines get parked around the corner to make room for the more interesting boats. Any gossip magazine worth it’s salt has pictures snapped in St. Barths of rocker/actress couples holding hands in the sand, topless supermodels frolicking in the waves, CEOs entertaining their “nieces” aboard mega-yachts – in every single issue. Privacy and discretion is a faux commodity in St. Barths, as every indiscretion seems betrayed ex-post-facto by tabloid photos stolen from 2 miles away by camera lenses as expensive as the Hubel Telescope. “Dropping in” on St. Barths in a private plane requires two-part preparation: the first part is making a date with a French instructor qualified to “sign you off” (as both insane and fully capable of landing solo in St. Barts). The second part of preparation is learning the four French phrases guaranteed to win over your new instructor: “bonjour” (hello), “merci” (thank you), “mon dieu!” (oh my God!) and “je veux ma mamman!” (I want my mommy!). With the French memorized, you’ll start your adventure in St. Martin, a half-French and half-Dutch island overrun by American tourists in search of a Vegas-like perpetual Spring Break, a duty-free (real) Rolex, or both. To get there in your own plane, head southeast to Puerto Rico, turn due east, then following the pink line to TFFG. If you’re renting a plane for this event, fly commercially to Princess Julianna Airport (SXM) and then find a ride to Grand Case Airport on the other side of the island. You’ll find your instructor sitting in a blue shipping container in the back of the rental car lot. I’ve seen, on occasion, signs on that container which read “Grand Case Flying Club.” Knock even if you don’t find a sign, for the Caribbean trade winds (and the occasional hurricane) wreak havoc on anything that hasn’t grown roots. When the door opens it becomes immediately apparent that the guy shaking your hand is sizing you up like James Bond judging a martini. This is where your preparation pays off. Say “bonjour” to the guy. He’s not allowed to smile before you say “Bonjour” because, face it, you’re American. Only after you say “Bonjour” does the French FAR/AIM manual permit a French Flight Instructor to smile at an American. As for his prejudgment of you, forgive him, because his only concern is to determine whether or not he wants to risk his life holding your hand through 7-10 death-defying approaches for about $40 an hour. It starts like this… He’ll interrogate you for 10 minutes in the privacy of the blue shipping container until he’s determined whether the two of you are likely to survive the afternoon. If so, then he’ll humble you for another 20 minutes with horror stories about pilots meeting their fate on this approach until he is confident you will do exactly what he says and when he says it. “Do not take ziss lightly – ziss is ZanBar and many many people die in ZanBar.” Once that look of “what am I getting myself into?” finally wipes the smile from your face, Monsieur Instructor invites you to sit down as he pulls a St. Barths VFR approach chart out. (One of the two approaches may as well have been written by Mark Twain because the wind in the Caribbean howls in only one direction - cyclones and convective wind shear aside). Next, you two will sneak out a back door onto the tarmac, bypassing immigration, customs, police, landing fees, flight plans and all things sacred. He’ll climb into the right seat of the plane, flip two switches and call Grand Case tower (in French) to tell Tower what you’re up to. The voice will come back with an altimeter reading and wind speed (usually 14 gusting to 56) plus the results from last night’s poker game and a request for the phone number of someone’s ex-wife. “What was that?” You ask. “Oh, dunt vurry. Zee tower ear haz not otoritee.” “The tower has no authority?” you ponder, but you don’t ask. Hey, it’s French and your French stinks, so you let it go. You run up, take the runway whenever you choose (because the guy in the tower can’t stop you), backtrack on runway 10, whip a U-turn, push your throttle to the firewall and start to roll. You rotate and then adjust a few things as you begin your climb to 1500 feet over the pale blue water. Ten minutes later, the instructor points out “Fourshue,” a rock at your 10-O’clock that marks the initial VFR approach fix for St. Barths. Abeam the rock he calls St. Barths to tell another “ otoritee -impotent” controller you’re inbound, after which your instructor tells you to “slow it down.” You back off about 50% on the power. He says, “No. Slow it down. Down, down down down! Gear down, full flaps, DOWN!” He then points to another rock about 2 minutes ahead and still 7 miles offshore and says, “That rock there is Sugarloaf (“Pain du Sucre” on the chart). Turn left there.” Two minutes later you bang a left and listen as the instructor calls “ZanBar” (you’re wondering what happened to the “aint” in Saint and “ts” in Barts). Immediately, your concern for French phonetics gives way to your anticipation of the stall warning. “OK, point her down,” the Frenchman demands. With your nose down, the island comes into view. “You can see the runway?” your new hero asks. You look down, and see the last 2/3 of a runway. The first third of the runway is obscured by what you were told was a “little hill” but, now recognize as the only 75’ mountain on the face of our blue planet. “Think of the approach as the sight on a rifle,” he says, “Keep the landing point on the runway in the groove between the mountains on each side and above the little hill in the middle. Do you understand?” “Yea,” you think, “I understand: As long as I can keep the landing point nested in the “gunsight” during a power-off freefall, maintaining 2-knots over my stall speed in my plane’s least responsive configuration, I might not hit one of those hills or ball my plane up in the hot tub of some Russian arms dealer’s mega-yacht.” Once inbound from Sugarloaf, you are considered to be on final. Nothing stands between you and an island of tipsy topless supermodels (of both sexes) except for an Everest of a mountain obscuring a Band-aid of a runway, both of which have taken the lives of pilots far more experienced than you. At this point, you’ll start to reconsider your options: the obvious tradeoff between guaranteeing your survival and observing one of Earth’s rarest species: drunk topless supermodels. Naturally, you press on. After negotiating 1350 feet of decent with the runway framed in “Gunsight Mountain,” things gets more complicated. As the instructor reaches between his legs to grab a bottle of water (you were praying for a defibrillator), he smiles sadistically and casually mutters, “don’t hit the cars.” Cars? “Oui, zee cars. Zee cars on zee top of zee hill.” Mon Dieu! Cars! Somebody (French) decided to put a round-a-bout atop the aforementioned “little hill” your landing gear was expected to clear by 15 feet - tops. You do some quick math: 15 feet of clearance minus 6 feet for an SUV you’re down to 9 feet of clearance over the zooming cars! Je veux ma mamman! With only 2 knots of airspeed between you and stalling (it’s very unfashionable in St. Barths to land upside down), you soon realize that you not only have to pull up to avoid the cars, but also a gaggle of tourists loitering atop the roundabout! What the @#$% ? Of course, flocks of amateur photographers are gathered in communal disbelief, poised to take your picture because to them you seem as stupid for trying to land as they seem for standing just a couple feet below your propeller in the last seconds of your freefall. To save yourself manslaughter charges, you voluntarily give up your 2-knot margin by giving the yoke a quick pull, barely overflying the cars and morons, then push hard on the yoke to point your airplane straight down at the most beautiful runway in the world. The hard part is over, but you’re not done yet. The new problem is that when you point your plane straight down it gains speed – and therefore it doesn’t want to land. But you’re patient and experienced, so you get your gear about three feet above the runway, and level it off and wait. As the beach grows closer, you wait. And wait. It then dawns upon you that your instructor failed to tell you that you’re little runway has a downhill grade! So you wait some more. Eventually, the plane settles and lands. Despite your fear of having to ask a supermodel to help pull your plane from the sand ahead, you lightly tap your brakes so that any tire squealing won’t draw attention in such a cool place. At this point, you’ve sweat through your shirt, your pants, your sunglasses and your upholstery, but you don’t really care. With about 50 feet of runway to go, your plane is under control and you reach for your window and crack it open. As you pull into the turnaround at runway’s end, you look out to find more (and smarter) photographers taking your picture and waving. I would by lying if I promised you that there will be 6’-tall half-naked supermodels walking on the beach at the moment you hit the roundabout, I can honestly promise you that everybody on that beach is tipsy by 10:00am. Taxiing toward the tower, you remember the evenings you came home with your chest puffed up and proclaimed, “Honey, I did my first solo today!” and “Honey, I passed my checkride!” In your adrenaline-manic state, you realize they just bumped to the second and third most memorable days of your flying career. It’s a great day. You turn to the man sitting next to you with whom you’ve shared one of the greatest thrills of your life, smile, extend your hand and say “Merci.” As you’re wondering how anything could ever make you feel more alive than your one landing in St. Barths, your instructor says, “Now vee doo eet six more times togeder and den you do two times alone.” And so you do.