Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa the Aviator

Pictures borrowed from the Internet.

Below is a similar article I wrote for the National Post (national paper in Canada) in 2004. Bear in mind this article was published when I was flying the international routes. But in keeping with the tradition of working Christmas, I have a 5:15 a.m check in tomorrow (Christmas Day).

What happens because Santa does not have a TCAS (Traffic alert and Collision Avoidance System)


According to the onboard navigation computers, the aircraft was precisely over the North Pole signifying Santa Claus and his workshop had to be directly below!

Note: None of the four polar routes go directly over the North Pole. The closest one is 60 miles away, but for this article I twisted the fact).

Unlimited visibility prevailed in winter’s star lit darkness on a recent “over the top” non stop flight from Toronto to Hong Kong, offering a rare glimpse of the North Pole as I scanned the frozen terrain for hints to Santa’s whereabouts. Though my last pilot medical still deemed my eyesight faultless, it was uncertain I spotted the glowing lights to Santa’s busy toy factory with elves working frantically inside. (On returning home, my six year old son was ecstatic to hear of my bird’s eye view).

During my search, I pondered the similarities and differences between an airliner and Santa the aviator. It’s a well known fact Santa Claus prefers a snow covered landing pad but not so for airplanes. Pilots prefer runways to be bare, and if dubious conditions exist, ground equipment will leap into action incorporating snow ploughs, sweepers and vehicles to spread a non corrosive chemical to melt snow and ice. We also consult charts to determine if the reported braking action and crosswinds are within limits, if not, it’s off to another runway or airport for landing.

It’s well known Santa lands on roof tops with very steep pitches. Our tolerance for take off and landing must be within two degrees of slope.

Very sophisticated landing instruments both on board and at the airport is a must in order for us to find the runway in snowy conditions. I’m certain Santa doesn’t navigate using global positioning satellites, or laser mounted gyros to detect momentum shifts…or does he navigate by ‘dead reckoning’ from a magnetic compass labelled ineffective in extreme northern latitudes?

While traversing the North Pole our airspeed is about 83 percent the speed of sound. One website armed with statistics on Santa Claus, postulated Santa’s required speed must be 3000 times the speed of sound to reach everyone on Christmas Eve. He must also have special permission to bust the mandatory airspeed restriction of 250 knots (460 kilometres per hour) below 10,000 feet (3050 metres) above sea level. Rules must also be twisted for not having appropriate navigation lights although Rudolph’s red nose could improvise for a red anti-collision light. There’s also deicing systems required as he enters cloud and the gamut of instruments necessary to keep the sled upright in disorientating cloud. (A non trained person flying in cloud is statistically proven to last under a minute before plunging into a spiral dive). Department of Transport could easily ground Santa’s sled on hundreds of violations but in the name of “Christmas spirit” Santa has been given a special flight permit.

As you know, in order to stay current, airline pilots must undergo rigorous testing every six months in a flight simulator. For the pilot, one of the toughest hurtles to nail down during a “check ride” (flight test) is the “loss of an engine” on take off. This reminds me of a story which circulates the aviation world in reference to Santa’s “check ride.”

Apparently even Santa Claus could not escape the required flight test with a Transport Canada flight inspector. In preparation, Santa had the elves wash the sled and bathe all the reindeer. Santa got his log book out and made sure all his paperwork was in order. He knew the inspector would examine all his equipment and truly put Santa's flying skills to the test. The examiner walked slowly around the sled. He checked the reindeer harnesses, the landing gear, and even Rudolph's nose. He painstakingly reviewed Santa's weight and balance calculations for the sled's enormous payload. Finally, they were ready for the check ride. Santa got in and fastened his seat belt and shoulder harness and checked the compass. Then the examiner hopped in carrying, to Santa's surprise, a shotgun. "What's that for?!?" asked Santa in disbelief. The examiner winked and said, "I'm not supposed to tell you this ahead of time," as he leaned over to whisper in Santa's ear, "but you're gonna lose an engine on takeoff."

Recently, all airliners around the world have been equipped with devices to interrogate other aircraft in close proximity, determining direction, altitude and if need be a resolution advisory given. It’s not known whether Santa’s sled has been updated with this new technology so it will be hard to see him coming. However, having flown many Christmas Eve’s, we generally make a passenger announcement advising passengers air traffic control has detected an unknown blip on their radar originating from the North Pole.

This Christmas Eve I’ll be flying from Calgary to Frankfurt (Generally speaking junior crews both in the flight deck and cabin will have the distinction of working through Christmas. Last year I spent it in London and the year before, Paris). Our flight plan will take us over Baffin Island and Greenland…two great vantage points to spot Santa and his hard working reindeer. So if you’re on my flight, expect a briefing on Santa’s whereabouts and a “Seasons Greetings” from the flight deck.


Ian said...

Hello from Berkshire - Happy Christmas to you and your family from us here in the snowy shires.

Your Christmas gift awaits delivery as previously mentioned last week of Janaury during my 5 day visit to Ancaster to see sis and clan!

All the best, Ian

Tim said...

Merry Christmas, Doug! Have a great one and a fantastic New Year! Talk to you soon!

Dogbait said...

All the best for Christmas and the New Year, Doug. Keep on blogging.

From the Flight Deck said...

Ian. Hello from Cold Canada. A five day visit? It must be more than just a layover. We are still working on a trip somewhere warm.

Thanks for the Christmas gift. I'll have to go shopping to return the favour.

We are about to sit down for a pre-Christmas dinner. With a 4:00 a.m early morning rise, I gotta start early in order for the "bottle to throttle" math to work.

All the best from this side of the Atlantic!


P.S I put your blog up in lights. It deserves recognition.

Abby and Calum said...

Happpy Christmas Captain Doug -

I'm Abby, and I am Calum - our dad said we could wish you Happy Christmas. Our dad is the Flying Scotsman. We hope he has bought us nice presents this year :)

Our mum also wishes you a good Christmas.

Abby and Calum

From the Flight Deck said...

Abby and Calum. Nice Names. I'm sure Santa will be good to you guys. Say hello to your mum.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Capt. Doug, Charlene, Kirsten, Kenzie and Kirk

From the Flight Deck said...

Dogbait (Reg). Thanks for the email. Yes, all the best to you too! Doug

From the Flight Deck said...

Thanks Tim. All the best and keep visiting my blog. Much appreciated.

Capt. Doug