The best Christmas lights I’ve ever seen

Christmas is not about flying and airplanes, of course. Christmas is about hope, and joy, and renewal, and giving, and sharing. However, an airplane can be used directly to make possible reunions of families and friends that will manifest such wonderful expressions of human emotions. And a pilot, just by doing his job, can be instrumental in affecting those reunions; and in so doing, that pilot will feel like he has made a wonderfully satisfying contribution to the goals of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men as he buttons his overcoat, tugs his uniform cap snuggly down on his head, and walks away from his airplane, bags in hand, toward the chain-link fence, through the open gate in the rain on a cold and quiet, foggy Christmas Eve night.

I hadn’t wanted to work on Christmas Eve; my family had its own plans, and I had wanted to be a part of those plans. Nonetheless, I was fortunate that the three-day trip I had been assigned was scheduled to end at nine o’clock p.m. on the eve of Christmas that year instead of late on Christmas Day. I had to steel my resolve and think stoically. After all, it was my job; it was my responsibility. So I packed my bags and reported for duty at the terminal office on December 22nd.

Beech 1900
Not where most people want to spend Christmas Eve.

Things were changing rapidly in commercial aviation back in the early- to mid-eighties. The major airlines had been abandoning their essential service routes to small cities across America like politicians drop their friends during election seasons. Thusly, I was employed by a nascent feeder carrier based in the southeastern U.S., flying 19-passenger turboprops up and down the mid-Atlantic states.

We had plenty of competition, too. There were four like-minded, newly-formed airlines all vying for the few business and leisure travelers we transported out of our humble little agrarian city. And in our makeshift, stretched general aviation airplanes thrown together hurriedly in a frantic attempt to give to unwary entrepreneurs and investors something that at least resemble airliners, we had nothing to offer our passengers during the flights except a promise to try to get them to their destinations safely and at the scheduled times. Collectively, our record wasn’t stellar.

The trip went well up until mid-day on Christmas Eve. A debilitating cold front had moved in during the morning hours, and it cast a smothering pall of rain and fog up and down the coast as far inland as Memphis and Detroit. It was terrible weather for traveling. We started that last day at noon in Richmond, Virginia, and were scheduled to make our way after one stop to Newark, New Jersey, then turn around and hopscotch our way home after making three stops. It would be a six-leg day – typical for the time.

Enduring the inevitable delays that were frequently chained to us in the New York area had become a way of life, but I wasn’t ready for the shock I received when I heard the news from my compadre in the right seat about our planned departure to the south. We were number 68 in line for a clearance, and the ATC computers were down at the moment. We would be very late getting home, and there wasn’t one single shop anywhere on the Newark airport complex that I wasn’t intimately familiar with…

The fact that it was Christmastime (everyone – mostly – was in the spirit of things while sampling the home-baked goodies set on every decorated desk and counter in operations), helped to quell the irritabilities that were brewing in many hearts and minds because of the delays, but we were all anxious to get home – no matter where we lived or what we did for the airline – and it showed. Knowing our customers were feeling the same anxieties, I decided to walk upstairs and try to smooth some ruffled feathers in the passenger waiting area with some homemade Christmas cookies. And that’s where my mission became singularly personal and directed on that Christmas Eve so long ago.

Lineup on taxiway
Hurry up and wait. A way of life in New York.

Sitting patiently reading a book among a restless throng was an army Sergeant named Jim. I have long forgotten his last name, but I remember he had many decorations and ribbons on his dress uniform. I approached him with my box of treats and asked if he was waiting to board our airplane. We struck up a conversation about the flight delay and also recent events.

I quickly learned that he was, as was everyone else there waiting, heading home on leave for Christmas. He had been forced to change his flight plans because of a cancelation on his original airline and now held a seat on our flight all the way – four stops later – to our tiny home base in North Carolina. There was to be a grand celebration upon his arrival home – a blessed thanksgiving for his safe return. You see, Jim had been involved in the recent military conflicts in the Caribbean area as well as special operations in the Middle East. He had served his country well putting his life on the line, and his family was anxiously awaiting his arrival.

We finally cleared away from Newark after a couple of hours’ delay, and all the way back to the south I kept thinking about Jim and his comrades-in-arms. They gave so much to us and our country, the least I could do was try to keep a pleasant attitude and give him some encouragement about the progress of our journey – which I did at every stop. I guess you could say that we became friends as I ushered him into each terminal for refreshments and quick stretches of our legs as the night wore on.

Upon arrival at our home airport, we were cleared into a holding pattern just to the north of the field because our competitors were making their non-radar, LOC-only approaches through the fog and rain first. We were to be the fourth and last scheduled airliner to land that night. It was after 11 o’clock, and the tower, which had been a 24-hours-a-day operated facility until only recently, had long since closed. So Jacksonville Center was handling all the arrivals that night. And since it was a no-radar operation, we all had to wait in line until, one-by-one, each airplane landed and cancelled its IFR clearance. So, around and around we went – waiting patiently.

In our cockpit, our hearts sank in disappointment and frustration as, one after another, the airplanes ahead of us reported no contact of the runway or approach lights and missed their approaches. In turn, they each elected to head off to whatever alternate airports they had selected. My co-pilot and I held out little hope that we would be successful in our attempt to find the runway, but we decided to try anyway.

ILS approach at night
The best Christmas lights ever.

Just as we were cleared direct to the locator outer marker to begin our procedure, I decided to call the operations office on the field and ask them about the conditions. A couple of the guys had been standing outside under the awning over the back door of the terminal building, and both of them had heard the three previous airplanes fly overhead and away from the airport as they missed their approaches. I asked them how low the clouds looked and what they estimated the visibility to be. The fellow replied that it was rainy and foggy, but the clouds didn’t look low enough to thwart anyone’s landing attempt, “but say, wouldn’t it be better if the runway lights were on?”

Lo and behold, the airport NOTAMs were as plain as day in informing everyone that, after the tower closed, the runway lights could be operated by each pilot on the CTAF – the tower frequency; all that was new to us at the time. And that was also the first time we each had arrived at our home field after the tower was closed. So guess who clicked his microphone seven times within five seconds and was the only one to land that night? I thought about all those other people in those three other airplanes headed off to somewhere else with bruised egos as we broke out and saw the runway. However, I didn’t stick around to see if they eventually came back, and I never ran into any of those guys down the road either. I thought I’d better keep that story to myself.

As we walked through the gate toward our cars to head home in the rain, I saw Jim and his family’s tearful, but ever-so-joyful reunion on the sidewalk by the fence. I shook his hand and wished them all well. He replied, “Thanks for getting me home for Christmas.” And it made my Christmas a satisfying one that year.

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