Operation Good Cheer

In Michigan, Santa flies GA

December 1, 2008

Well before the first light of dawn had begun to give any hint of warmth to the world, the first arrivals were being sequenced down final, landing lights ablaze in the frigid air. Every minute or two, a piston twin or fast single would exit the runway at Michigan’s Pontiac-Oakland County International Airport, and taxi toward the terminal to be marshaled into parking by heavily bundled volunteers.

On the ramp, arrivals became a ritual; the props would hush to a stop, the pilot would emerge blowing steam, slapping his or her gloves together and commenting on the wind and bitter cold as a volunteer approached and pointed the way into the terminal building where warmth, hot coffee, and directions for the pilot’s next stop awaited.

It was December 8, 2007, and the massive airlift portion of the annual effort to get Christmas gifts to foster children in Michigan, “Operation Good Cheer,” was beginning. Nearly 150 airplanes converged on Pontiac, their pilots donating their time and their airplanes and willing to face the challenge of Great Lakes winter weather in order to help kids with rough lives have a better Christmas. The twins and fast singles were the first aerial participants in a ballet choreographed by Jerry Drew. He manages the hundreds of volunteers who come together to somehow get more than 13,000 wrapped Christmas presents collected and sorted and then into the correct airplanes so each present shows up under the right Christmas tree. Drew, an air traffic controller, has arranged arrival times for the airplanes so that the fastest load can depart first, assuring separation between faster and slower airplanes carrying gifts that may be bound for the same airport.

As the pilots entered the terminal building, they joined a short line for the table where they were assigned a destination depending on speed of their airplane (the fastest are sent the farthest), capacity, and how the initial planning for airplanes and presents is holding up. Once a pilot learned of his or her destination, the next act of the ballet began, characterized by individual pilots wandering slowly around the terminal, cell phones pressed to ears, talking with flight service to get a briefing and file a flight plan now that their route is known. Then there was a moment for some coffee and maybe a doughnut or two and conversation with other pilots before going back into the single-digit cold and double-digit wind. For many pilots, this was a chance to catch up with friends they see but once a year and make solemn promises to get together when the weather is warmer.

It seems that once a pilot volunteers for Operation Good Cheer, an addiction develops. Gary Hess, a dentist from Dexter, Michigan, has been coming back with his Cessna 310 for more than 10 years. His son, Alex, whose feet weren’t quite touching the ground that morning as he had learned just the previous day that he had been accepted to both the Air Force and Naval academies, shares his father’s enthusiasm and has been riding along since he was 6 or 7 years old. As Gary put it, “We yank the rear seats out, transform Old Buttercup into a tramp freighter, stuff her full of bicycles and fill every remaining cranny and wing locker with other presents.” Fortunately, the presents are bulky rather than heavy, so there is never a problem with weight.

Briefings obtained and flight plans filed, the pilots returned to their airplanes, holding the terminal door for others who are just arriving as the ballet started to resemble an assembly line. Each pilot had been told which of the four trucks, parked widely spaced on the east ramp, holds the presents for her or his destination. Taxiing toward the selected truck, the pilot saw its team of volunteers standing well clear as the leader shows where to shut down. The volunteers then approached the airplane, confirmed where the pilot was bound and asked whether the airplane can carry any bicycles, which are the biggest challenge to transport. Each volunteer was trained not only to respect and stay clear of propellers, but to handle presents gently and load them only how and where the pilot directs.

Watching the process of loading airplanes simultaneously from four trucks, one marvels at the coordination and spirit of giving that caused thousands of presents and scores of volunteers to come together at this moment. Dean Greenblatt, a former charter and airline pilot who is now an aviation attorney, was not flying that day; instead he’s a team leader at one of the trucks. “We’ll have this 30-foot truck emptied after the first 10 airplanes if we get some Saratogas and 310s without passenger seats. Even though I hate mornings—must be a psychological scar from flying freight—and it’s minus 12 degrees and two layers of clothing isn’t enough, the sun is climbing over the horizon and, mentally, I feel warmer. There isn’t anyplace on Earth I’d rather be.”

The happy activity of the day was the result of one pilot, Constantine Kortidis, who goes by “Taki.” Back in the 1960s, Taki convinced a number of his coworkers at Ford Motor Company to donate the money they would otherwise spend on sending Christmas cards to each other to help Michigan’s abused, neglected, or abandoned kids in foster care. Taki learned about Child and Family Services of Michigan, a nonprofit group that does what it can to help out kids in foster care. They told him that the state’s budget for foster care didn’t stretch far enough for foster parents to buy Christmas presents and if Taki’s group would buy and wrap presents, Child and Family Services would see that they would go directly to the children. Taki agreed and Operation Good Cheer was born. For privacy, Taki’s group was not given the identity of any child—just the age, sex, and a three-present wish list. A coded sticker on each wrapped present allowed Child and Family Services to see that it got to the correct child.

Ford employees embraced Operation Good Cheer, and word of it eventually spread throughout the state. Within a few years, enough presents were being delivered to Child and Family Services’ office that they exceeded the small group’s ability to deliver them through the large state; it’s a 12-hour drive from the southeast to northwest tip.

Taki started flying the presents in a Cherokee Six on a Saturday in December, putting some 16 hours on the airplane the first year, but soon the volume overwhelmed him and other pilots volunteered to help. Over the years Taki has remained very involved, having been elected to the board of directors of Child and Family Services, but no longer runs the annual operation, having passed the reins to Jerry Drew.

Now people all over the state are buying, wrapping and attaching coded stickers to Christmas presents in late fall. Pentastar Aviation donates one of its massive hangars and, the day before the airlift, scores of volunteers come to the hangar for a full day of receiving and sorting presents by destination airport. The presents are brought to the hangar in everything from cars to minivans to school buses to jammed semi-truck trailers and even military vehicles as several guard and reserve units buy and wrap presents.

In about eight hours the hangar goes from a bare floor to, as Tony Wright, put it, “I stand over six feet tall and I was unable to see over the many rows of gifts.” Early Sunday those presents were loaded into the eight donated Penske rental trucks and shuttled to the aircraft loading area.

Once loading was completed and the pilot was satisfied everything was stowed safely, the loaders stood clear, usually with one or two sliding into the cab of the truck to get out of the biting cold. The pilot started and taxied a few hundred yards before calling for taxi clearance so that the airplane’s propwash didn’t disturb the loading of the next airplane, which was already pulling up to the truck. The controllers at Pontiac tower were swamped that morning, and handled more than 500 aircraft movements before noon.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association is one of several organizations that enthusiastically support Operation Good Cheer. Controllers from all over the Detroit area pitch in by doing whatever is needed from providing extra, volunteer staffing in Pontiac Tower to expediting instrument clearances and helping the duty controllers spot aircraft in and around the pattern, to physically helping load presents on the ramp.

Sunrise saw the first loaded airplanes streaming toward runways 27R and 27L for departure. The controllers juggled the continuing arrivals, now mostly singles, and the need to get toy-laden airplanes into the air.

I was invited aboard the Cessna 205 owned by Doug Ranz of West Bloomfield, Michigan, its cavernous interior full of presents. It was his first time to fly in Operation Good Cheer and he admitted to being surprised by the sheer magnitude of the operation and how smoothly everything went. We were number three for takeoff on Runway 27R, yet the wait was brief as the controllers shot all three of us out after creating a gap in the inbound traffic.

Aloft, the sky was utterly clear, a rarity for Michigan during winter, when the lakes surrounding the state more often generate overcast conditions that can, and do, last for days at a time. Our destination was Grand Rapids, putting the 205’s nose into the teeth of a near gale, so our speed over the snow-covered ground was sedate. Motoring westward we listened as the conversations between the controllers and the numerous airplanes flowing outward from Pontiac became banter as everyone seemed to be infected with the spirit of the morning. Those on IFR clearances were given direct routings, those seeking flight following were asked if they are also flying a sleigh full of presents.

Arriving on Northern Air’s ramp at Grand Rapids, we were met by families with excited children who helped unload the airplane. The children’s expressions were priceless as bicycles, tricycles, and other brightly wrapped presents were unloaded. Michael Batchik, a federal judge, flies his Beech Sierra year after year. “The children come to the plane with the biggest smiles to help unload all the gifts,” he said. “It’s a wonderful experience. It’s too bad the ground crews who work so hard to package and load the airplanes don’t experience those smiles.”

As the gifts were taken to cars and vans in front of the FBO, local volunteers offered coffee and cookies to the pilots. There was a feeling of accomplishment. It’s a good feeling, and well justified because on December 8, 2007, 144 airplanes and at least that many pilots came to fly for Operation Good Cheer. They made 177 flights (a number made multiple flights) in aircraft ranging from two-seat trainers through business jets and a rare Convair 5800 donated by IFL Group. They delivered more than 13,000 presents and made Christmas a little bit better for more than 4,000 children.

Perry Steward summed up the feelings of many volunteer pilots. He first started flying his Cherokee in Operation Good Cheer 13 years ago and said that, on his first flight, he had to shoot the ILS to get in when the field went IFR as he drew near. A little girl met him on the ramp and told him that she saw the red light on his airplane and decided he was Rudolph, Santa’s lead reindeer. “The feeling I got from her innocent smile made flying single-engine, single-pilot IFR on a December day in Michigan easy. It made my Piper fly like an iron eagle that could fly through anything. So 13 years later, on the coldest, snowiest days, you’ll find me out there on the first weekend in December flying presents to some boy or girl who wouldn’t have a Christmas if it weren’t for the good people at Child and Family Services of Michigan and the pilots who fly.

“Thanks to Taki for doing what you did so many years ago.”

Rick Durden writes from Michigan.

Organizers of Operation Good Cheer say that this year’s event will go on as planned despite the death on June 24 of founder Constantine “Taki” Kortidis. A Michigan aviation icon, Kortidis, age 70, died in a one-car accident.