It just doesn’t seem like Christmas, as we navigate our Flying Carpet southward over sun-drenched cacti of the Sonoran Desert. True, the baggage compartment brims with presents for distribution to nieces and nephews at my brother’s Tucson vacation home. But even a dozen delightful years in Arizona have not resolved snow-shrouded images of Santa and reindeer with the incongruous realities of parched desert and wearing shorts in wintertime.
All the same, this yuletide flight brings back warm memories of holidays past, when annually we over-flew white-flecked fields and forests delivering gifts from Indiana to relatives in Illinois and Wisconsin. Our boys were small then, and holiday travel meant cramming four of us with bags and presents into the close confines of an aero club Cessna. It was easy enough imagining Santa just-as-closely packed into his sleigh amongst towering piles of gold-and-red-wrapped gifts. Wonder if he has to calculate weight and balance?
Often on those holiday rounds, temperatures submerged themselves double-digits below zero, so we swathed the kids like pigs in blankets, wearing gloves and boots and sleeping bags for emergency backup. It never did get really warm in the plane, so Jean and I peered out through frost-fringed windows to avoid errant flying reindeer and identify our snow-camouflaged destinations.
We never doubted it was Christmas back then, thanks to “Happy Holidays” clearances issued by friendly controllers. Santa’s sleigh and reindeer shrouded Lafayette Tower every year, while one of our destinations, Chicago’s DuPage County Airport, offered yuletide radio welcome. One year the recorded weather information was named to a seasonal phonetic alphabet: “Information Christmas Tree, Information Reindeer, and Information Santa.” (Normally it’s coded to the standard aviation phonetic alphabet: “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie,” etc.) Another time tower controllers recorded weather and landing information to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”
For seasonal reinforcement, there was the abominable Midwest wintertime climate. Somehow we always made it to our holiday destinations, despite snow swirling about our propeller, slippery runways, and ice-filled clouds. Bad weather might mean arriving or departing a day late, but that just accentuated the warm reception of relatives in a bitter-cold world.
Shoveling snowy memories aside, I revel in today’s mountain vistas and clear-blue skies. Perhaps there’s a subtle rightness to this year’s holiday travel, after all. It’s the first time since moving to Arizona that we’ve had occasion to fly on Christmas Day to join with relatives. Traveling together as a family is all the more rare and special now that our sons have grown to be young men.
Holiday traffic recedes below as in the past, though this time hardy souls drive convertibles with tops retracted instead of slithering through slush. Still, it’s easy enough to imagine rowdy kids and colorful gifts inside those cars-and countless smiling white-haired grandmothers awaiting them at their destinations.
After skimming low over mountains, we turn final at private La Cholla airstrip, where prior permission has been granted to land. With its prickly-pear-and-ocotillo setting, scattered rancho-style adobes and gravelly approaches, La Cholla plays the part of an old-time holiday ranch. Surely, Sky King’s “Songbird” must be parked on the ramp. And if only Roy Rogers or Rex Allen would greet us on horseback, they could lead us in cowboy carols before a roaring fire and a Christmas tree in the aging airport clubhouse.
We taxi past welcoming arms of a giant saguaro cactus on the just-a-bit-ragged ramp. No singing cowboys meet us, but there waits my sister-in-law Lesley with lovely teen-aged daughters Rachel and Jillian, and my young nephews Danny and Sean. Rachel ogles the cockpit but Danny and Sean are mostly interested in opening those little spring-loaded doors for accessing tire valves through our Cessna’s wheel fairings. Peering inside with bottoms up and heads upside down, they seek whatever curiosities might be found there by little boys. The two scamper back and forth between one wheel and another, until distracted by the mountain of presents emerging from our baggage compartment.
Rachel wants to fly so I look to my sister-in-law for approval. Despite her fear of flying, Lesley grants it with a “You will be careful…” smile and a nod of her head. Neither Jilly nor the boys want to go, so we install Rachel in the cockpit with headset and grin, and pirouette over her house nestled with its swimming pool against the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains.
“Would you like to fly?” I ask Rachel, as we bank toward lower ground. She takes the controls, and I’m treated to the winning smile some lucky young man will fall for in the future. I know at this instant that Rachel’s present is the best I’ll give this holiday-yet one more ticket to a young person’s latent dream of flying. She will never forget this moment, whether ever becoming a pilot or not. I suppose in this one regard I’m even luckier with my Flying Carpet than is Santa with his sleigh. After all, how often does he get to share his gift of flight?
Too soon for Rachel, we touch down again on the narrow and rugged strip, and pile all together into a dusty van for the short ride to my brother’s. More presents await us there, plus seductive aromas of turkey and pies and all the fixin’s, undeniably of holiday origin.
“Put on your bathing suit,” says my brother, after a warm embrace. “The margaritas are made, and the swimming pool’s waiting.”
Guess there are some good sides to this new holiday tradition, and I’ll just have to get used to ’em. Eat your heart out, Santa.
Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown was 2000 National Flight Instructor of the Year. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop, or online catalog, and visit [http://www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com/].