Intercept - A Christmas Miracle
W. Patrick Gordon
(Written as a Christmas present for my wife about 1990.)
We were at flight level three nine zero, enroute from Washington, Dulles to Van Nuys, California. After business meetings on the East Coast we had dropped the Chairman for a week-long visit in Washington, D.C. It was Christmas Eve and we were scooting along at mach .80, eighty percent of the speed of sound.
Executives like the Gulfstream III because it has lots of room inside but doesn’t look so big that it attracts undue attention on airport parking ramps around the world.
The airplane seemed to sense that we were hurrying home for a variety of reasons. Clint had a wife and two kids waiting for Santa Clause. Irene, the flight attendant, had a boyfriend flying for an airline who was on a reverse scoot from Hawaii. With any luck she could beat him home and have his Christmas present waiting for him. Me? Well, I wasn’t in a hurry. I had an empty, one-bedroom apartment rented on Sherman Way out in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles. I had already told the other two that I’d take care of the after-landing details so they could hit and run on touchdown.
The return leg was supposed to be empty. Ergo, few chores and little time invested earning return favors if I ever wanted the same.
Well, you know the bit about best-laid plans. We occasionally offer space on the corporate planes to people who have serious illness and need to get from one part of the country to another for treatment. The idea was developed to move sick people around quickly and cost-effectively. At the last minute our travel department accepted one of these mercy flights for the return leg.
The passenger’s name was Erica. She was from Virginia, seven years old and had terminal cancer. Her doctors wanted to get her to the UCLA Hospital in Los Angeles for specialized treatment. You kind of wonder sometimes who’s dealing the cards of life and how they can give a kid such a lousy hand. Not only was she dying, she was dying alone, an orphan. That’s why the only other passenger was a nurse volunteering her time to the orphanage.
All I knew about the nurse was her name: Mary Ann. Ok, ok, so I knew a little more about her than that. She had clear, light blue eyes, shoulder-length auburn hair and pale creamy skin with just a touch of make-up. Her white uniform set off her long, lean figure as she moved around the medical oxygen bottle and IV rack cramping the quarters at the rear of the airplane. She had a different look from what I was used to seeing in California, where every woman is blonde and tanned and firm. On the other hand, maybe it was the uniform. I’ve always been a pushover for woman in a uniform.
When Mary Ann arrived, a little ahead of Erica, I tried to engage her in a bit of conversation, but she was all business. I didn’t see a ring on her finger or even the mark that a ring might leave, but I’d met too many married people who didn’t bother with rings. I assumed she was either single or married to someone who didn’t mind her being gone on Christmas Eve. Maybe a cop or another pilot, someone with strange, irregular hours.
When Erica arrived, we spend nearly 45 minutes getting her and all the medical gear on board and properly secured. Several times I found myself close enough to Mary Ann to get a whiff of a very stirring perfume. It was unavoidable that I occasionally bump against her in the cramped space and become aware of her only similarity to a California Girl: the firmness beneath that crisp uniform. You’re right I digress.
Erica had light brown hair, almost blonde, and her face and arms were dusted with freckles. She was small for her age, but it was difficult to tell exactly how small, since she sort of hunched over as we moved her to the converted couch in the airplane.
Erica brought to mind guys I had hauled out of the jungle in a chopper, in terrible shape, hanging on in a sort of dull stupor. She appeared to be taking life like they did. Not one flight, one day, or one week, but one breath at a time.
I was brought back to the reality of the cockpit by Indianapolis Center calling, “Gulfstream fifty bravo golf, can you climb to flight level four three zero for traffic?”
“Stand by while I run a quick, weight check.”
Flying with Clint was good experience for me. He was a perfectionist, did everything exactly by the book. I couldn’t imagine anyone I would rather fly with. His attention to detail could be a pain at times, but he wouldn’t get you into trouble with a guess.
I checked the cruise charts. “It looks ok to me, Clint. Shall I tell him yes?”
Clint took the ever-present toothpick from his mouth, gazed at it thoughtfully before replying. Not being the world’s greatest talker, his reply was a nod.
I keyed the mike again. “Centre, fifty bravo golf’s back with you. We can make four three zero. Are we cleared to climb?”
“Thanks a lot bravo golf. I’ve got a possible traffic conflict developing. You’re cleared to four three zero and Merry Christmas”.
“Roger that”, I said. “Fifty bravo golf is leaving level three nine zero for four three zero and Merry Christmas to you too.”
We eased into the climb and gently added power. Irene came up to the cockpit: “What’s going on?” “No problems,” Clint said, “just climbing to comply with a traffic request. How about some coffee?”
“Sure thing,” she said, turning to me. “How about you, David, care for anything?”
“Coffee would be fine, thanks”.
Irene was a class act. I don’t know why she wasn’t in a profession where she could use her looks to full advantage, but here she was, flying around in an airplane in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve. Un-Christmas-like thoughts of what I would like from Irene flashed through my mind, but I decided my best shot with her was coffee.
With the coffee, Irene delivered a status report on the passengers. “Could you turn the heat up a bit please? The little girl doesn’t look good and the nurse just asked me for another blanket.”
“I’ll throw another log on the fire now,” I said cranking up the temperature knob.
The trouble started while we were passing over St. Louis under the control of Kansas City Centre. Clint, of course was the first to notice.
“What’s going on?” he asked perplexed. “Look at that airspeed!” I looked at my airspeed indicator and saw that it was steadily decreasing. I cross-checked it with the one on Clint’s side of the cockpit hoping it was a failure on my side only. No such luck. His was decreasing at the same slow steady rate.
Clint began an audible check of his instruments and I reached for the emergency checklist in order to have it handy once we discovered the nature of the problem.
He sounded like a monk chanting a familiar litany.
“Both airspeed indications decreased, which means two different systems are affected.”
He moved the power levers to check the engine performance. “Power indications normal.” The litany continued.
“Altitude steady and holding, heat checked on and lights out, altitude indicator reads normal.” He shook his head. “Now that really is weird. How can we be losing airspeed and maintaining altitude with the same deck angle?”
The altitude indicator is a complex instrument that has a little picture of our airplane displayed over an imaginary line marking the earth’s horizon. We use it for flying in clouds when we can’t see anything outside the airplane. Sort of like a primitive video game. If we were really losing airspeed and not losing altitude the airplane would be trending above the indicated horizon line. Weird was the word alright.
As a precaution Clint reached up and turned on the seat belt warning light, then attempted to turn off the auto pilot. The switch moved to the proper position, but the auto pilot appeared to stay on. Clint gripped the control wheel tightly and tried to move it. Frozen solid!
As we dropped below 190 miles an hours Clint began squirming in his seat. “Let’s get some wing flaps out,” he said, hoping to increase the effective lift of the airplane wings.
“Do you really think we ought to do that? I think we have a restriction against flap extension above 20,000 feet.” “Very good, David,” he said. “Why are you still a copilot?”
I have occasionally wondered about that myself.
“Shall I call center and let them know we have a problem?”
“Yeah, go ahead.” At least he was talking now instead of just nodding or shaking his head.
I keyed the mike, but the usual clicking sound was gone. The side-tone, which I usually have on to hear myself as I transmit, was absent, which meant the radio was dead. I tried the other two radios with the same result. In a last-ditch effort to communicate with the ground, I tried to set the transponder, a silent transmitter, to the emergency code. I could not turn the knobs! Clint, who had stronger hands, tried to change the code but there was no moving them. They were frozen in position.
Irene had buckled herself into the jump seat between us and was following out activity.
“Everything is strapped in,” she said. “Anything else I can do?”
Clint ignored her. “Nothing I can think of, kiddo, just hang on,” I said. “If we can’t move the controls and this thing quits flying, we’re going to come down like a lead sled.”
Out of habit I checked outside for traffic. My eyes were already back on the instrument panel before the realization hit me. I looked again. The lights of the small towns below appeared to be passing at the same speed before our problem started. After many years of flying you develop a sense of speed over the ground, just as you get a sense of speed driving past the telephone poles.
Clint, checking out his window to confirm this, brought my attention to something else. “I think I’ve got traffic out here. Looks like a dark shape closing at my nine o’clock position, moving in the same direction. Seems to have only one red beacon up front for lighting.”
I leaned forward to see around him. “If there’s a dull green glow at the front, it might be Santa Clause.”
“This is not the time for your bizarre sense of humor,” he snapped.
I kept my mouth shut and, sure enough he said, “What would a green glow have to do with Santa Claus anyway?”
“Everyone knows his reindeer are from Lapland,” I explained. “After they all got zapped by Chernobyl they have a greenish glow in the dark.”
Irene tittered at my attempted humor. Clint just huffed and continued to glare through his side window at the unidentified traffic slowly encroaching into our airspace.
I have always had a bit of trouble with my ears while flying and now a slight pressure change caused them to pop. As I held my nose, close my mouth and blew gently to clear my ears I looked at the pressurization indicator and found another abnormality. Cabin pressure was approaching sea level, yet we were still apparently at 43,000 feet.
By now we had all the Gulfstream lights on for identification. As the unidentified object moved slowly into the glow of our strobe lights, we saw a sleigh holding a fat man dressed in red being pulled by a team of reindeer. The light was too poor to count them. But I swear to God, that’s what it was.
The reindeer were running at full speed in perfect step with one another. The fat man looked over at us and grinned, his white beard and the tassel on his hat streaming in the wind. His right arm swept upward in a grand gesture and from his hand spewed thousands of small lights, like waterfall of stars that shrouded the sleigh, reindeer and airplane in a glowing cocoon. The reindeer slowed then stopped completely. Yet their position to the left of the airplane remained the same.
By now Mary Ann, the nurse, had squeezed herself into the cockpit with us, and we all looked back and forth, from the stationary sleigh and the reindeer, to our own zero airspeed, to the lights on the ground below, still passing quickly by. The big Gulfstream appeared to be resting on its belly and wings, content as an old cow, grazing on the bed of stars.
Santa stepped from his sled and walked forward to check his exhausted team. His feet kicked up a little explosion of lights as he stepped from reindeer to reindeer, calming them. Their breath made little clouds in the cold air. I looked at the outside air temperature indicator, which should have read at least fifty degrees below zero. But it was only ten below; a result of that protective shield of stars?
After a quick, post-flight check of his reindeer, Santa walked across the carpet of starts to the main door of the Gulfstream and knocked. As we sat there, unsure of what to do, he stepped up to Clint’s side window. Smiling and arching his white eyebrows he touched the tip of his nose with his finger: the Gulfstream’s main door opened with a thump. Irene and Mary Ann rushed back to the cabin to be with our passenger.
“Don’t be alarmed, my friends,” Santa said. “This will only take a moment. I understand you have a sick little girl on board.” Too shocked to speak I just pointed to the rear of the airplane.
Santa leaned into the cockpit. “Everything’s under control. No radio calls coming in, and since we’re all still tracking properly across air traffic control’s radar scopes, no one else in the world has any idea of what’s going on up here. You’re right on time with your flight plan.”
Clint looked at me. “All I need for him to do is go ‘Ho, ho, ho’.”
I swear, as Santa waddled down the aisle to the rear of the airplane, we heard him say, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas. Now where is little Erica? I understand she isn’t feeling well, and I want to see her.
“Here I am, Santa,” Erica said. She sat up on the couch and Mary Ann plumped the pillows behind her back. “How did you know where to find me?”
“For goodness sake, Erica,” Santa said. “I keep track of everyone on my list, especially good little girls like you. I do have something to confess, though.”
“What’s that?” Erica brushed here hair from her eyes with her hand. The plastic tube to which the IV needle was connected waved slowly as she moved here arm.
“I think I lost your letter with your Christmas wishes on it.”
“No, you didn’t,” she said. “I never sent you one because I didn’t know where to have you come and see me. The big kids at the orphanage all said you weren’t real anyway. I knew they were wrong!”
Santa patted here blanket-covered leg. “I was afraid I was getting old and forgetful when I couldn’t find your letter. Since I didn’t know what you wanted for Christmas, I brought you something very special. No youngster in the whole world is getting anything like it.”
“Really, Santa?” Erica’s voice was a squeal.
“Yes, siree,” Santa reached inside his red jacket and pulled out a set of shiny, new, professional pilot radio headsets.
“This is my own special headset that I wear when I drive my sleigh on Christmas Eve. I use it to listen to all the airplanes, so I don’t get in their way.”
“Oh, thank you.” Erica think hands clutched the present tightly. “But won’t you need them tonight?”
Santa paused for a moment before saying, “No, I won’t be needing them any more tonight. You see, I’ve already delivered all my presents. You were my last stop, and I nearly ran my reindeers’ little hooves off trying to catch up with you.”
“We don’t want to get Erica too excited, Santa,” Mary Ann whispered.
Santa reached up to touch Erica’s forehead. “You’re right. And I’d better get home before Mrs. Claus starts to worry. Erica, you’ve got to rest now so you can get well. We all love you very much.” “I love you too, Santa.”
He waved and blew her a kiss as he backed down the aisle and closed the galley door behind him. My neck was getting stiff from watching all this over my shoulder. As Santa closed the galley door Clint asked, “Is that it for the night or do you have some presents for us?”
Santa laughed and patted Clint on shoulder. “No presents, just some advice. You’re never too old to believe. Believing is more fun anyway.”
He touched the side of his nose and was gone. The sleigh, the reindeer and the protective shield of stars disappeared, and all the instrument indications were back to normal.
“Gulfstream fifty bravo golf, contact Denver Center on frequency 124.9.”
“Roger Center,” I replied. “By the way, were you trying to call us earlier?”
“Negative bravo golf. It’s pretty quiet down here tonight.”
I keyed the mike again. “Yeah, it’s pretty quiet up here too.”
At the Van Nuys airport, the ambulance was waiting, and the attendants transferred Erica quickly and efficiently. She seemed to be holding that headset for dear life. Though she was obviously exhausted her eyes glowed with excitement.
We all stood at the back of the ambulance and said goodbye, Clint and Mary Ann with tears in their eyes. No one moved until the ambulance disappeared around the corner of the hangar.
“Such a great little girl,” Clint said.
“Come on, you guys, I said in my gruffest voice. “Get your gear together and get out of here so I can go home and get some sleep.”
Mary Ann stepped closed and brushed a bit of white cotton from my uniform jacket. “Thanks for a lovely flight, David, I don’t know when I‘ve ever enjoyed one more”.
I dragged the toe of my shoe across the hangar floor. “Why shucks marm. It tweren’t nothin’.”
While I was helping unload the crew baggage we discussed possible interpretations of what we had witnessed on the flight and decided on the one I’ve described. Erica believed in Santa Claus and maybe we did too in our own way. No one could deny that Santa had visited a sick little girl at 43,000 feet. How he got there and how he left might be questionable, but none of us felt like doing much asking.
It was now Christmas morning, and as a present, I tossed Clint’s hang bag into the trunk of his car for him. It held the special suit he’d bought in Washington to surprise his two kids. He smiled at me, probably for the first time since we’d been flying together. “You really did a nice job tonight, David. Care to do an encore at my house in a few hours?”
I thought about it for a moment then reached for the hang-bag. “What time?”
“Around eight would be fine.”
“See you then”
Clint already had one foot in the car. “By the way, I won’t mind if I see the cost of a replacement headset on your next expense account.”
“Thanks. Can I get one with a microphone on it? Mine didn’t have one.”
He shook his head, grinning, and drove off with Mary Ann whom he’d offered to drop off at the Airport Hotel. The tires on Irene’s car squealed as she raced around the hangar trying to beat the airport’s automatic gate.
I took my time easing the airplane into the hangar with the tug, switched off the lights, and slowly closed the big electric door. As I moved toward my car, I realized that I was humming a Christmas carol, something I hadn’t done in years.
Clint now has three kids. Two in high school and one in fifth grade. Even though the department is a lot larger these days, we occasionally fly together.
Mary Ann was at Clint’s house later that morning when Santa showed up again. We became friends, then after a while decided we were more than friends. Because of our jobs we both have weird schedules; everybody said it would never work, but we got married anyway. I never knew how good it could be to have a wife, friend and lover all in one package.
Erica’s cancer is in total remission. Maybe her new environment had something to do with that: she’s Clint’s third child, the adopted one in fifth grade.
She’s turned into a real hangar rat. Underfoot every chance she gets. She’s doing a great job as an apprentice aircraft cleaner, but she does have one major problem: She looks up too much. Every time a plane goes overhead, she stops and watches until it’s out of sight. Clint says she got that habit from her Uncle David.
The headset? It’s hanging on her bedroom wall, she says she’ll need it when she starts flying.