It’s Christmas morning and I rise early, not to play Santa to my children, for they are long grown. Today I rise early to gift myself. I’m careful not to wake my wife, warm and snuggled under the covers. She has no interest in this thing that I go to do.
Carols played in the mess hall and the calendar read “December 24, 1969,” but it didn’t feel like Christmas Eve. We were tired from a long day of flying many missions picking up infantrymen and recon patrols from field locations, bringing them back to the big airfield at Phan Thiet for the Christmas cease-fire. Soldiers on both sides of this war were glad to allow the cease-fire to start one day early.
Back “in the world” people were sitting down to turkey at grandmother’s house and snow was drifting mistily beyond frosted windows that reflected the flame-shaped bulbs of hanging wreaths. In Vietnam it was hot and humid and sticky as the four Marines sat in the troop seats and looked gratefully at Boyd.
It happened one Christmas Eve, at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, where I was captain of a 777-300. I looked out the front window to see passengers still running towards their gates, bags of Christmas gifts swinging, children struggling to keep up. I could tell from their posture and motion that they were either out of breath or in tears, maybe both.
I can think of a few times where I was on a quiet, I mean really quiet flight line. Once was when I was the commander of an F-4 squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. In the mid-eighties Seymour was a busy operation – nearly one hundred Phantoms and a squadron of KC-135s were bedded down there.
When I was a new-hire at American, back in 1977, I occupied a position very close to the bottom of the seniority list. Having Christmas off was of no real importance to me, since I was single, unattached, and living in Manhattan, where there is surprisingly little to do on December 25th. So instead I conceived of a plan to surprise my folks with an unannounced Christmas visit.
My C-123 unit had asked for volunteers to fly troops to and from the Bob Hope USO Christmas shows in Bien Hoa those two days. Flying certainly seemed to be a better alternative than spending a lonely Christmas in my room, I reasoned, so I gladly signed up to be scheduled as needed.
Whatever else he was, Gill Robb Wilson was most definitely the inspiration for one awkward, gawky, Midwestern teenager who wanted to be a pilot more than anything in the world. Recently I was rereading his poems and the one about Christmas in “The Airman’s World” reminded me of my best ever Christmas flight… a flight where I wasn’t even the pilot.
The first big cross-country flight I made in a light airplane was in 1976. A college buddy and I thought it would be fun to fly from Ohio to California and back over Christmas. Being young, single, and invincible at the time, we did not think too much about what the weather might have to say about it. We departed Springfield, Ohio (KSGH) on December 20 in a borrowed 150-hp AA-5 Traveler.
It was December 1978, and I had been a private pilot since July 11 of the same year. Christmas would be our first trip – to Gulf Shores, Alabama, from Austin, Texas, to visit the wife’s parents and show off the four-month old baby girl.
On Cay Caulker, Belize, the conch shell Christmas ornaments hanging on palm fronds marked the season as Christmas and my wife and I felt merry. It got even more Christmassy a few days later in Antigua where the ancient buildings that lined the large plaza were lit with small white lights. A band played Christmas music of all types. It was Christmas season 2015-2016.
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.
For my 80th Angel Flight, the MVFR forecast turned into reality, but out over the water, it was even lower than advertised. I was in the clear at 1500 feet, but “clear” was all relative. There was nothing to see. No horizon. No water. Nothing at all, really. “JFK, Jr.” type conditions.