Santa’s Little Helper: A Cargo Pilot’s Christmas Eve

Can a crusty old freight hauler save Christmas? He might just pull it off, but only if he can teach a bunch of new dogs some old tricks.


It was a dark and stormy Christmas Eve, just like it is almost every year. What were they thinking? Christmas should be in July.

I thought I was retired from working for the Big Man, but no. There was the text message in that green-on-red font. (How does he do that? Must be a deal with Apple.) I didn’t have to read the text; I could tell just listening to the howling wind outside. The weather was low and the kids hauling Santa’s bags to build their 1500 hours were in trouble. Santa was calling to the old dogs…meaning I had to go.

I was just about to settle down for a long winter’s nap, too.

To the Workshop

With all the melting on the ice cap, they moved the runway this year. This left the NDB approach from Workshop unauthorized. No matter. I eased the Twin Beech down over the beacon the way I always had, and followed Christmas lights the rest of the way in.

The field broke out just long enough as I crossed overhead, and I practically taxied sideways with the winds. Schmidt was waiting in the hangar, waving the new RNAV approach in my face and brushing tinsel off his head.

“How the hell did you fly this?” he demanded shoving the plate in my face. When I told him I didn’t, he tossed up his hands: “Well that explains it.”

Schmidt is old guard, but he hung in there when the Reindeer Landing System and zero-zero approaches became the norm. Only the Big Man had organic equipment, so all the contract sleds got glass panels and what Schmidt and I dubbed the “iron Rudolf”—GPS guidance and red landing lights.

I quickly grabbed the chart and gave it a read. Said right in the changes that it was a noel job, and clearly a rush one: SANTA was the IAF/IF but wasn’t marked as such, the elevation of the Chimney Research tower was missing, the Localizer-only was marked with a DA rather than an MDA, and the visual missed icons were missing the last step. They hadn’t even corrected the date when they copied it from some other chart. It was 2015 for cryin’ out loud. Sloppy.

“Reindeer in the vicinity of the airport,” I told Schmidt. “At least they got that right.”

Other than that it was a pretty straightforward GPS with vertical guidance to the new Runway 18/36. The descent angle of seven degrees was a bit aggressive, but I’d seen Schmidt dive-n-drive hard enough to leave ribbon marks on the ceiling. Where was the issue?

“GPS guidance goes completely screwy inside the FAF,” he told me. “Tried to correct with the winds and the needle just ran away.” Turns out Schmidt had just flown the approach and put it in the trees. Luckily, the ornaments cushioned his crash.

That explained the tinsel in his hair.

The New Kids

While we talked, a crowd of hopeful faces, white shirts, blue ties and red-on-green epaulet covers surrounded us. “How are we supposed to fly this approach?” one pleaded. “We have to make several runs each tonight and if we launch, we’ll never get back in!”

“Easy,” I said. “Roll your own NDB approach with that GPS.”

Fifteen sets of eyes stared in befuddlement.

“Pick up a known point over the sea ice and put Workshop off the nose. Reset your heading indicator to 360 and adjust your correction inbound until you’ve got the freeze angle. Hold the heading until station passage. Start your timer, drop your gear, start down, and once the needle settles down, put the same angle on the tail. The angle gets smaller with distance and there’s some shoreline effect now that the ice has melted more, but it’s only five degrees on most days. Unless there’s a storm. Anyway, you either find the runway and circle-to-land, or pour on the coals, clean up, and call Pole Approach.”

Fifteen sets of big eyes regarded me as a madman.

“You can do it,” I said. “Just ignore the compass. Up here it staggers worse than an elf on his second bottle of peppermint schnapps.”

“Hey, I resent that!” She was a tiny thing, pushing her way from the back of the group. Must have been elf, ’cause she was wearing a flying scarf instead of captain’s bars. Might have been a he; it’s hard to tell with elves. But who am I to judge?

“And we can’t do it,” she went on. “We could put Workshop in as a GPS waypoint and turn on a bearing pointer, but the PFD has a digital HSI slaved to a remote magnetometer. So we’re stuck with the—” she leaned in for emphasis “—drunken heading. The digital HSI will switch to degrees true but only when the right approach is loaded, and the old NDB approach isn’t in the database any longer.”

She grabbed the chart from my hand and waved it for all to see: “The problem is this final approach course is 360 degrees true, but it’s to Runway 18. It starts on one side of the pole and crosses over on the leg COMNG to TOWNN. Now you’re flying 180 degrees true and the digital HSI flips to show it — but some rocket scientist forgot to change the final approach course to match. It’s still pegged to 360, so the needle reads backwards the rest of the way to the MAP.”

We all just stood there searching for something equally smart to say. One of the epaulets whined in despair: “You can’t fly an approach without course guidance.”

Kids these days. “You have guidance,” I said. “We used to fly backcourse approaches all the time. Just fly to the needle until,” I eyeballed the chart figuring the pole was about a third the way between COMNG and TOWNN, “say a mile past COMNG. Hold wings level for a few seconds and then treat it like a backcourse.”

The eyes bugged even wider. One pair’s owner raised his hand: “You intentionally flew approaches with backwards course guidance?”

Before I could dope-slap the kid, another one chimed in: “What happens if we refuse?”

“You wake up with a reindeer head on the pillow next to you,” I said. “Let’s fly.” The elf-girl laughed, but the kid missed the reference. I think he was wondering if it has something to do with too much peppermint schnapps. We all headed for the sleds.

Hope for the Future

“There’s one more problem.” Schmidt was wringing his hands. “Part of the RLS is the red landing light that lets us see through all this blowing snow. The reversed HSI makes the onboard computer think we’re already on the missed. and the landing light switches automatically to white. You can’t see to land.”

“Don’t use the lights,” I said. “I didn’t.”

“Is that why you have this?” The elf held up a length of Christmas tree lights she extracted from my left gear door.

“OK.” I thought about it. “Do you have any spare red bulbs you can put in there?”

“Bulbs?” asked one of the epaulets.

“LEDs. Whatever.”

“Um,” one of the kids raised her hand. “We could swap in the red nav light on each sled and use that. We’re stealth to other aircraft anyway.”

I felt that naughty, conspiratorial grin appear on my face. “Now you’re thinking like a freight dog.” I gave Schimdt a slap on the back. His kids might just work out all right after all.

As they loaded up the sleds high with gifts, I texted to the Big Man that cargo was moving again and he could relax. His reply came back almost immediately: “U R D Man.”

I gotta give it to the ol’ guy. His outfit might be kinda dated, but he sure moves with the times.

While Jeff Van West never actually was a freight dog, he feels like he must have been one in a previous—probably short—life.


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