Like many CFIs I began my teaching career as a ground instructor. My first client was a private pilot who needed a knowledge refresher before doing his flight review. It had been years since he had flown. The experience was special to me for two reasons: Number one, he was my first client. Number 2: He paid me with a check that had a Star Trek design on it—the original series. I didn’t think anything would top that until one December day in 2012 when I was called upon to provide ground instruction for you know who, the man, the myth—I mean, of course, Santa Claus.
It was a Saturday and the FBO was holding its annual holiday event. Customers filled the place, and candy canes and chocolate were being handed out. My coworkers were dressed as elves and kids were taking turns sitting on Santa’s lap making their toy requests.
It was a typical winter day in Seattle, with low clouds and fog, and snow was just starting to fall as I returned from a flight in Cessna 310. The heater didn’t work very well in the 310, so I was sporting my B-17 flying suit. I had just walked in the door when the boss grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into a classroom.
“We have a problem,” my boss said, closing the door.
“What happened?” I feared the worst.
“Santa needs a flight review,” he said, his face ashen. “If he doesn’t get it done today, there will be no flight on Christmas Eve.” My boss explained that a combination of a busy pre-holiday schedule and a lack of an available CFI at the North Pole had put Santa in a bad place.
The boss explained there were unusual circumstances—the sleigh is designated in the experimental category, and Santa is the only pilot who holds the ‘multiengine deer’ type rating. The FAA was sending a safety inspector to do the flight portion of the review—but the flight would only take place if the one hour of ground instruction had been completed. Santa had arrived early at the FBO and had been one-on-one with the boss, then the kids started showing up, forcing them to end the session early.
“He’s about 15 minutes short,” said the boss, glancing over his shoulder nervously. “We didn’t get to airspace. We can’t pull him out of the lobby right now without starting a panic.”
I understood what he was telling me. This was going to have to be a stealth ground session.
Still wearing my flying suit, I grabbed a VFR sectional and got in line with the kids waiting to sit on Santa’s lap.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! What do you want Santa to bring you this year?” Santa asked as I took my place on his lap.
“I’d like you to bring me a clearance through the Seattle Class B, if that’s possible?” I said, opening the sectional. “Can you show me Class B?”
“Certainly! Would you like to know the dimensions of the Bravo as well as how to get that clearance?” Santa asked, a gleam in his eye.
“Yes, Santa! I would!” I said cheerfully. “Could you tell me about entry and visibility requirements and dimensions of Class Charlie airspace too?”
We spent the next few minutes using this method—me asking questions about airspace and him answering as though I was requesting them as a gift. I was in a sweat, wanting to get him finished before the FAA inspector arrived—and before the kids who were waiting got anxious.
We had just finished talking about special use airspace when the boss came back into the lobby with a man who was wearing a name badge identifying him as FAA. The boss smiled and tapped his watch. The mission had been accomplished.
“I think that’s everything, Santa,” I said.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Would you like to sign Santa’s logbook?” he asked, reaching into his flight bag that lay on the floor next to the chair. He handed me a fountain pen with mother-of-pearl inlay and a large goose feather on the end. I had never seen such an exquisite writing implement before, and certainly had never used one to sign a logbook.
“It would be an honor, sir,” I said, quickly flipping to the back of the logbook where I carefully noted the date, airspace topics covered and time of the session—we had been talking approximately 18 minutes, so I recorded 0.3 in his logbook, my certificate number and signed my name. “Here you go,” I handed his logbook back to him.
As I started to extricate myself so the next kid—an anxious little girl in pink—could give Santa her wish list, Santa cried out “Wait a minute! Santa has something for you!”
I turned around in time to see him reaching into a large well-stuffed cloth sack that lay on the floor next to his chair. He reached inside and pulled out a utility tool with a blade, screwdriver heads, pliers, seatbelt cutter, several allen wrenches, and an LED flashlight on it. “Merry Christmas!” he said, handing me the device.
I took the tool and turned it over in my hands. I was surprised.
“Who told you my weakness?” I asked.