Taking Wing: Homeward Bound

An airline pilot's New York Christmas tale.

Airline Pilot Christmas

christmas lights in shop window in caernarfon, wales, great britain uk

Working on Christmas is nothing new to junior pilots in the airlines.Alamy

An inescapable part of flying the line as a junior pilot is working on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays — Christmas above all. Most everyone wants it off, especially those with young children, and many resort to tactics such as bidding a reserve line to get it. Under the old rules, Part 121 pilots were limited to 1,000 hours of flight time per calendar year, and I’ve seen a few friends pick up a punishing amount of overtime flying in a futile effort to “time out” before December 25. I’ve never been that desperate; I actually enjoy flying over the holidays, and for several years I got in a groove of bidding trips that ended early on Christmas morning. The flights were usually empty, the ATC frequencies quiet, and it was a really nice, peaceful way to go home to spend the rest of the holiday with Dawn and extended family.

I’ve seldom been more junior than in December 2014, when I was in my first year with my current airline and I was commuting from Minneapolis to New York to boot — yet somehow I managed to snag a good line with the last trip ending on the afternoon of December 24. However, I neglected to check the flights for my commute home prior to bidding, and thus didn’t realize that my airline greatly reduces its Christmas Eve schedule. The upshot was that my trip ended at JFK at 3:10 p.m., and my only chance of making it home that night was a 4:20 p.m. departure from LaGuardia. That’s a really tight connection under the best of conditions, but the next feasible option didn’t get me home until the following afternoon. The prospect of spending Christmas Eve in my Jackson Heights crash pad didn’t sound terribly appealing; I decided to go for broke and hope for the best.

New York is by far my airline’s most junior base and is largely staffed by pilots who live elsewhere. My youthful captain for this trip was a Boston commuter, and he was wholly on board with the go-fast program for our last leg, a three-hour hop up the coast from Orlando, Florida (MCO). The winds were favorable, we had plenty of gas, and our dispatcher filed us via the shorter over-water routing that leaves Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, about 100 nm to port. We seemed to have a good shot at making it to Kennedy a half-hour early or better. And then, slowly but surely, it all went pear-shaped.

Even a small reduction in the arrival rate can prompt ground stops clear to the other side of the country. And while this wasn’t quite a white Christmas, it was just gray enough to gum up the works pretty good.

First we waited for a few straggling passengers to extricate themselves from the clutches of the TSA, and then we sat on the ramp with doors closed, waiting for rampers to come load the last of the bags. Finally we pushed back, started up and got our taxi clearance — to Runway 18L, clear on the other side of the airport, stuck behind the first and only Southwest Airlines jet I’ve ever seen taxi at that mythical walking man’s pace. We climbed southbound for a good 20 miles before Orlando Approach got us turned back toward our flight-plan route. No sooner did we check in with Jacksonville Center than the en route delays started: “Turn right heading 090, 280 knots or less, vectors for the sequence to Kennedy.” An hour later, Washington Center slowed us further, to 250 knots, and gave us several nearly perpendicular turns off the route to follow traffic. Apparently, several airlines were simultaneously bringing in their entire fleets to spend Christmas Eve in New York!

In reality, none of this was very unusual; ATC delays are a fact of life going in and out of all the NYC-area airports. New York’s population is at an all-time high, the denizens are as affluent as ever, and the city is again one of America’s hottest tourist destinations as well as a major hub of travel between the Americas, Europe and Africa. All this burgeoning air traffic is sharing the same finite airspace and the same few stretches of concrete as 30 years ago. The proliferation of regional jets hasn’t helped the congestion one bit, either. Everything flows reasonably well when the weather is good, but even a small reduction in the arrival rate can prompt ground stops clear to the other side of the country. And while this wasn’t quite a white Christmas, it was just gray enough to gum up the works pretty good.

Descending through FL 190 over the Jersey shore, we checked in with New York Approach and were told to expect an ILS to Runway 4R. Hot dog, a straight in! Nope, not so fast: After a bit, they sent us left to heading 320 and told us to instead expect the Parkway Visual to 13R, then turned us further to 280 and switched us to the VOR 13R approach. We had just finished that briefing when they again changed their minds and switched us back to the ILS 4R! In my book, the controllers at New York Approach are the best of the best, true professionals whom I love working with despite their often brisk demeanor — but they certainly don’t mind asking a lot of the pilots in their airspace, so you’d best bring your A game when flying there. In this case, their indecision was caused by quickly changing conditions in flying scud, driven by gusty, shifting winds. We bounced through the clouds interminably and occasionally caught glimpses of angry leaden whitecaps through breaks in the churning mire below.

In my book, the controllers at New York Approach are the best of the best, true professionals whom I love working with despite their often brisk demeanor — but they certainly don’t mind asking a lot of the pilots in their airspace, so you’d best bring your A game when flying there.

By the time our McDonnell Douglas jet finally thumped down on a soggy Runway 4R, I had mentally resigned myself to a New York Christmas Eve. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Perhaps my favorite Colombian restaurant down the street from the crash pad would be open, fútbol reruns on the big screen over the bar as I tucked into a steaming plate of pollo con arroz with sweet plantains. Maybe after dinner I'd hop the 7 train to Grand Central and ride the Lexington Avenue Local down to my favorite East Village watering holes, their dark booths haunted by generations of broke students, scheming pols, literary greats and old-school mobsters. And then I might come back to the suddenly heaving crash pad to find several old friends I hadn't seen in forever claiming their bunks for the night, and I'd dig out that stashed-away bottle of Laphroaig and we'd toast the season and long-ago flights and shoot the breeze late into the night. Work in this industry long enough, and your definition of family expands well beyond the biological.

But then, miraculously, we were cleared straight to the gate, the alleyway was clear, the marshallers were waiting with wands in hand, and the gate agent pulled the jet bridge close before we’d even shut down the engines. Perhaps, perhaps … I shook hands with the captain and bade him farewell, bounded through the terminal, and ran huffing up to the first curbside yellow cab I saw. “How’s the Van Wyck looking?” I queried of the credulous cabby.

“Eh, the usual, not great,” he grunted. “Where are you headed?”

“LaGuardia. My one shot at getting home for Christmas leaves in 35 minutes. Can you do it?”

He paused only a half-second, looked me in the eye, and nodded determinedly. “Get in. I’ll get you there.”

New York City Traffic

New York City. Park Avenue at dusk in winter with rush hour traffic.. Image shot 2007. Exact date unknown.

Getting from JFK to LaGuardia during rush hour is no easy feat.Alamy

God bless that New York cab driver. He was true to his word and proved himself the finest specimen of his kind that I ever had the honor of watching in action. He drove with determination and verve, precision and purpose, jostling for position with skill and cunning, working the pedals like a prodigy playing a Stradivarius, silently plotting every move and reconsidering his strategy with every faint shimmer of brake lights on the horizon. Twice he cut across three lanes of traffic to dive off an exit onto a broad, fast-flowing surface street, bypassing a freeway snarl he had intuited from a half-mile away. This pro among pros managed to convey me from JFK to LaGuardia, door to door, in 22 minutes during rush hour on a Wednesday. I gratefully thrust a wad of twenties into his hands, heartily wished him a merry Christmas, and dashed into the terminal. I arrived at the gate just in time to hear the agent calling my name to come collect my first-class seat.

So I made it home for Christmas against all odds, and that made it a pretty special holiday. Two years later, I’m still pretty young and still pretty junior, and I have no doubt that I’ll yet fly many birthdays and anniversaries and Christmases to come — probably including this holiday season. That’s OK: It’s what you do when you’re junior, and there are far worse things that one could be stuck doing. But when the universe throws you a bone, you have to remember and celebrate it. I’ll certainly never forget my New York Christmas miracle.