Dispatch: Operation Santa Claus

Published on December 23, 2011 by in Dispatches

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For the past month, I’ve been working in Western Alaska. As usual flying up there was a love/hate affair. The flying was great: it’s one of the few places in the world where you get in the plane and Go! And go … and go … and go. Generally, it was a lot of hard work. I was working for the Bering Strait School District, and it was one of the most organized operations I’ve ever flown for. I was also working with a nice, small, relaxed group of people.  The work environment was great, but eight hours in the cockpit is still eight hours of work … even with the rolling hills of the Seward peninsula unfurling below you.

When you’re in the work groove putting in 17 landings a day at the same airports, seeing the same planes on the same ramps and chatting with the same pilots on the radio, anything different can provide an interesting distraction. A National Guard C-130 blocking the ramp at the tiny coastal village of Wales (the westernmost settlement on the American mainland) was a very large distraction. Especially when a figure looking suspiciously like Santa was climbing on board!

I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but I did know that my 406 was blocking what appeared to be Santa’s high-tech sleigh from the runway. I didn’t have any choice since they were blocking the ramp, but I still had a sense of urgency as I tossed boxes of freeze clear of the taxiway. It’s incredibly rude to hold up Santa!

It was obvious that I wasn’t working quickly enough when one of the C-130 crew members ran out of the tailgate and started to help pile the boxes up. Due to the fact that the C-130 had to back up to get back onto the runway, it was important that the boxes be well clear of the taxiway. Evidently my disorganized pile was a little too close for comfort. In a mad flurry of activity we managed to get my plane unloaded and Santa was free to fly!

Flying over Nome (in a small window of cell reception) on the way back to Unalakleet, I manage to get a quick text out to Mike inquiring about the C-130. When I landed, he had an email waiting for me with links that explained the C-130 and Santa at Wales. It appears that the flying Santa Herc has been a long-term village outreach program the National Guard has been running on and off in Alaska for years: Operation Santa Claus.

We don’t always think of military flying as an oddball flying job, but there is no question that few pilots get an opportunity to participate in a project like this. To make it even more interesting, the Crew Chief who helped me unload told me he flew a Cub on floats at Lake Hood in the summer. Not a bad way to start a flying career. Maybe I’ll dig him up this summer and look into the ins and outs of working with the National Guard, and the opportunities it  might open up outside the military. We’ll add that interview to the list.

Finished with my contract in Alaska, I’m off to Montana to do a little ice climbing. Happy Holidays everyone!

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