A Christmas Story - Sometimes you have to look up to see your tree

Printed in Air & Space Smithsonian  December 2008

It seems that every ex-serviceman has a Christmas story that needs to come out, and I am no different.  By now, chances for any possible government sanctions are past, and I truly do not remember the names of any of the participants.  And somewhere in this country is a woman who was never believed as a small child when she said, “I don’t know how it got there.  Santa must have dropped it from his sleigh!”

Comments, questions,
or just want to talk airplanes?
Drop me a note
or call:
816-763-5205

Santa-C141

The story starts on December 24 in the early 1970s at Yokota Air Base, just north of Tokyo.  I was co-pilot on an Air Force cargo jet, a C-141, and we had spent the previous two weeks shuttling people and cargo all over Japan, Korea, and southeast Asia.  We really wanted to be home for Christmas, but that was not going to happen unless we could be assigned to an aircraft heading east to Seattle.  And that did not look any more likely that morning than it had for the past several days.

Then, good news.  A mission going east.  Bad news.  Wasn’t scheduled to depart until about 10:00 pm, too late for Christmas Eve.  But good news.  With the crossing the international date line, we would be home before we took off, so we could be there in time to deliver all of the goodies we had purchased in Japan. But bad news.  The mission was not slated for our home base near Seattle, but to the aircraft’s home east of Los Angeles.  Well, nothing solved by whining, and maybe we can catch a ride on something coming back north once we get back in the states.

So, by evening we put ourselves back into good spirits.  The aircraft is loaded with a several thousand gallons of fuel, and about ten tons of mixed cargo.  By evening, there is nothing for us to do but check weather, make a pre-flight inspection and hit the road.  But first, some Christmas decorations.  As we pass through an empty passenger terminal, we spot some cheap garlands of fake holly, festooned with little gold and silver balls.  And, the piece de resistance, a seven-foot, fully decorated, honest-to-God, real Christmas tree.  All of this would look great in the plane, and would put us in the mood.  While the loadmaster made his last checks of cargo placement, and the flight engineer checked the aircraft condition one last time, and the navigator made one last check to proposed headings, I took a few minutes to spread some Christmas cheer.  I found places around the flight deck to hang the garland, and a spot in the cargo bay to put up a Christmas tree.  My thought was that during the long flight home, we could wander at leisure with our in-flight coffee cup and check out the tree and think forward to playing Santa Claus.

So, with Christmas thoughts, we rolled out on the runway late in the evening, pushed the four throttles forward, and set 325,000 pounds of aircraft moving down the runway.  A slow turn to the east, a “Merry Christmas” to the control tower guys, and we were climbing out over the Pacific Ocean.

It was nearing midnight as we leveled off at 37,000 feet but in only an hour or so we would be seeing the sun rise.  And then it would be Christmas day.  But just after that happened, we would cross the dateline and, like with a time machine, we would be transported back to the morning of the 24th.

The plan was to fly to Elmemdorf AFB at Anchorage to refuel.  And at that time we would pass through US Customs and Immigration, get a “permit to proceed” for the aircraft cargo, and get a cursory agriculture inspection for the plane.  Elmendorf was considered an easy airport of entry.  Customs generally did not ask us to empty out our bags of dirty laundry, nor did they generally ask us to unwrap all of the presents we purchased.  They just accepted our list of items purchased, told us the bill, and sent us to the passport people.  And they made a quick check of our passports, said “Merry Christmas”, and sent us on our way.

And clearing the aircraft and its cargo was just as easy.  The cargo would get a “permit to proceed”, which meant that it had not been inspected but could legally proceed to another point at which it would be unloaded and  inspected by a customs agent.  And the nice guy from agriculture just stuck his head in the door, said, “Yes, it’s an airplane.  Merry Christmas.  Be on your way.”  So, we filled our fuel tanks, filled the coffee pots, pushed the throttles forward one last time, and headed southeast.  Out of the snow of Alaska, on to sunny southern California.

We passed over our homes around 6:00 a.m. and looked down on sleeping Seattle, and pressed on southward.  Somewhere over Oregon or northern California came the first hint of a problem, and it came from the cargo deck.  “Uh, Pilot, this is Load.  Do you have the cargo manifest and the customs papers?

“Load, Pilot.  No, of course not.  Why would I have them?” 

“Co-pilot, Load.  Do you have them?”

“Load,  Co-pilot.  Ditto.  You have them somewhere back there.”

“I have looked and looked. What kind of Christmas game are you guys playing?”

Somehow, out of the sky,

a fully decorated

Christmas tree landed in

 the yard

Well, this conversation went on for about ten minutes with us telling him that to look for his paperwork on the cargo deck, and him telling us that it had to be on the flight deck..  The ramifications of landing without the paperwork could be serious.  In the worst case, we could be accused of smuggling, as we were bringing cargo into the country with no proof of passing through Customs control.  While none us figured out that that was likely, we knew that we would all face a long hassle with government bureaucracy on landing.

Finally, we admitted to ourselves that the paperwork was probably left on a counter somewhere in Alaska.  Perhaps it was left in the Customs office, or perhaps it was set down when the load master signed for the coffee.  In any case, it was not on the aircraft.  So, it was time to make a radio-telephone call back to Alaska and see if anyone had the papers.  And sure enough, the papers were still on their clip-board sitting on a counter.

Now, if this had happened in today, we would have called the powers-that-be, and asked that they be faxed or emailed on to LA.  But, for readers who are younger, pretend that there was once a time when fax machines, email and personal computers did not exist.  So therefore, we then entered into a long, broken conversation, punctuated by phrases like, “Well we have the paperwork here. Do you have enough fuel to come back and pick it all up?” (An emphatic “NO”)  Finally, a compromise was worked out by all of the government agencies involved.  We could travel to our destination.  The crew would be met by all concerned and would be allowed to depart because they had cleared Customs and Immigration.   The aircraft would be impounded in place with cargo on board awaiting the paperwork.  And the Agriculture inspectors would make a new inspection.  “And by the way, guys.  We have a flight moving back up north.  We can hold if for you for an hour till you arrive, but not any longer.  So keep on coming south.”

It could only

have come

from Santa

This seemed fine to us.  It just moved the headache to someone else; that someone who really wanted his cargo off of the plane, and some other someone who wanted to start the normal post-mission maintenance work on the plane.  But it was Christmas Day.  No one was going to be doing that anyway.  And besides, there would be another flight down the coast within a day or so.

And so we droned on south.  In time, Los Angeles Center cleared us to descend and the mountains northeast of LA came into view, followed by our view of the gray-purple smog. 

 We leveled off at about 5,000 feet as we normally did, anticipating our standard arrival of a descent once past the mountains on a southerly heading, followed by a couple of right turns to land toward the north.  The air was bumpy, as it often was coming across the foothills, so the “Door-Open” light was not too surprising. 

Having a “Door-Open” light illuminated in flight is a big deal when the aircraft is pressurized, but when the aircraft has been de-pressurized so that internal air pressure matches external pressure, it is not an issue at all.  And it did not happen often, but it was not unusual for one of the two passenger doors to get bumped out of its fully-locked position.  So, the pilot’s response was typical.  “Load, Pilot.  We have a ‘Door-Open’ light.  Can you check doors please?”  And a quick response: “I’m on it.  How’s that?”  “Light’s off, thanks.”

Then a radio hand-off to Norton Tower, gear down, cleared to land, and we are back on the ground.

Taxiing in, however, brought a real unpleasant realization. Not only was the aircraft going to be impounded for the Customs inspection, but we had to undergo another Agriculture inspection.  And they were really serious about that in California.  Bringing foreign live plants into the state was a big no-no.  And we had a live Christmas tree in the back.  And we knew that by the time we went through that explanation and had the plane fumigated and who knows what else, our ride to the north would be long gone. And as us two pilots and the navigator discussed this turn of events in rather disgusted tones, the Loadmaster chimed in.

“Pilot, Load.  I wouldn’t worry too much about the Christmas tree.  Remember that door open light about ten minutes ago?”

So, somewhere in this country, there is a woman in her late 40’s or early 50’s, telling a Christmas story to young children.  And she will say, “Yes there is a Santa Claus.  And I remember the Christmas Day when I was a little girl and we lived in California and we did not have a tree.  And I was real sad.  And then, somehow out of the sky, a fully decorated Christmas tree landed in the yard.  It could only have come from Santa.”

Don’t Practice Until You Get It Right - Practice Until You Don’t Get It Wrong