Where the love-light gleams

Greeting the holidays far from home

December 15, 2011

Call it a rite of passage, or an occupational hazard, or just one of those things that come with the territory: If you work in the aviation industry, there’s always a chance that you may find yourself far from home during those special times when other families are gathering to share the joy of the season.

And as any working pilot knows, just because you catch a break schedule-wise, there’s still no guarantee that being home for Christmas will happen (except perhaps in your dreams) if Old Man Winter happens to be in a grinchy mood. That’s when the camaraderie that’s so natural in the aviation community—and a few special touches from others who care—can help make the loneliness vanish, replaced by the joys of giving and sharing.

From gift bags prepared for the crew by one of its flight attendants, to an all-out Christmas dinner served up between airline hops, stories of holidays on the road make up in the warmth of the season for what may be lacking in length or location of the celebrations.

If the holiday season has been kind to you this year, go ahead and thank the thousands of pilots like FedEx’s Jeff Linebaugh for warming your hearth. By the time Christmas rolls around, the members of this dedicated branch of the aviation family have been going all out for the better part of a month to make the season jolly.

“Thanksgiving away from family becomes the new ‘family tradition’ for junior FedEx pilots. We've all spent several stuck ‘out,’ as we don't typically fly on Thanksgiving,” he said in an email message.

The sacrifices made by these hardworking crews don’t go unrecognized by the many people who know what they are doing to bring holiday cheer to others.

“As an act of appreciation, our company has traditionally bought Thanksgiving Dinner for our crews stuck in a hotel,” he said. “In Indianapolis, one of our hubs, layover hotels put on nice spreads for the dozens of crews. In Memphis, our main pilot base, crews’ families who live in domicile open up their homes to crews stuck in Memphis away from their families.

In the weeks that follow Thanksgiving, as the work pace builds to a climax, the holiday spirit becomes a visible presence in the workplace as the common task of getting everything and everybody to the destination on time becomes even more of a team project than usual.

“Christmas week can be a crazy scramble as the last-minute packages, and crew members try to reach their intended homes before Santa comes,” he said. “Christmas ties and even Santa hats are seen in the crew rooms, and crews typically lend an extra helping hand to ramp loaders and agents.”

AOPA member Dudley Johnston has seen holiday separations from the two vantage points of his service as a military aviator and corporate pilot.

“Several times while an Air Force pilot I was on alert or TDY (temporary duty) over Christmas. It just goes with the job,” he said.

It wasn’t always easier on the civilian side, especially when the Northeast’s winter weather was acting up.

“As a corporate pilot in the early ‘70s, I recall that I spent two New Year’s Eves at the Boston Hilton because the weather at my home base (Westchester County, N.Y.) was below minimums,” he recalled.

Also from the 1970s, a story of far-from-home fliers preserves the memory of loneliness transformed into a few quick hours of holiday time for an airline crew, made possible by a brief Christmas Day stopover at one pilot’s home base.

“All three of the cockpit crew were unhappy that we would be away from home over Christmas,” recalled Chuck Bartlett, who flew for Northwest Airlines from 1968 to 1995. “I made arrangements with my wife to have Christmas dinner prepared with all the trimmings. After landing, we jumped into my car and were sitting down for dinner at my home less than an hour after landing. Thanks to my wonderful wife, we all had a relaxing and enjoyable Christmas meal and made it back to the airport in time to check in for our next flight.”

As co-founder of the Sky Hope Network, an organization that harnesses the resources of business aviation to provide assistance in times of emergencies such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Jo Damato is no stranger to putting aviation to work in the service of others on a year-round basis. So when faced with the need to explain to her children why their pilot dad would be unable to participate in the family Christmas celebration: she took the creative approach. Dad was off helping Santa, who had shown his appreciation by presenting the family with a special tribute, she said.

“My husband flies for a major airline and may not be home to celebrate Christmas. To soften the blow when we tell our young children that daddy will not be home, I created these Santa's Flight Crew (SFC) Wings,” she said in an email to AOPA. “Captain Santa will send a letter with a pair of these gold-plated metal SFC Wings announcing that he needs daddy for a special Christmas mission.”

At a time when friends and families are gathering to share a season of joy, here’s hoping that such stories as these raise the spirits of those who can’t—and serve as a “thank you” to those who will be away from loved ones as a result of their service to others.

“Not the sameas Christmas at home with your family, but still a celebration of theseason,” reflected Bartlett on that quick Christmas dinner prepared for his crew by his wife in Minneapolis, Minn. “We all went back to work with more of the Christmas spirit.”

FedEx’s Linebaugh added that it is meaningful, when far from home during the holidays, to remember that you are bringing the joys of the season to many others.

“When away, it helps to feel like you are making someone's Christmas special,” he said. “In essence we all get to play Santa: Ho, ho ho!”