Christmas Gifts

54 years ago, my parents married on Christmas day. Their friends weren’t doing anything, and everyone had the day off, so it seemed like a reasonable choice. And no one ever forgets their anniversary. My sister and I have a tradition of calling on Christmas to thank my mother for her Christmas gift: us.

Twenty five years ago, I had just gotten my pilot’s license. I was living in Seattle, but was spending a few days back home in Denver before shipping off to Japan for a year as an intern with Hitachi. I passed the checkride at the last possible moment – the day before I’d had to leave, and had only flown once since: a couple of laps around the pattern with my girlfriend Mary before she dropped me off at SeaTac. Mary had been my encouragement and support throughout the learning-to-fly thing, and it was only right that she got to be the first passenger (note: the weather was awful, and I really shouldn’t have been flying that morning – there’s a bit of a story there, too. Maybe later?)

Regardless, I had about 20 minutes of official “Pilot in Command” time under my belt when I arrived in Denver. My friend Brian had no idea I’d even been working on the license, and I was determined to take him on a “surprise” flight as a Christmas present. (another note for new pilots: it is generally inadvisable to take the unsuspecting on “surprise flights”. But Brian and I had already been party to enough inadvisable adventures together to justify it.)

I called the local flight school to see if I could rent a plane. I don’t remember the constraints, but there was only one time they had available: Christmas Day. Problem was, before they could let me rent the plane, they had to take me on a check-out flight – giving your airplane to a novice pilot to operate in unfamiliar airspace entails a little more due diligence than handing over the keys to a rental car.

The receptionist and I pored over the schedule – there really was no time and no one available anywhere to give me a checkout flight. I was nearly distraught – my work to get the license finished before I left for Japan, keeping it secret from Brian. To be foiled so close to having the perfect surprise for him – it seemed unfair (Okay, really, it was just bad planning. But the 23-year-old brain typically interprets “bad planning” as equivalent to “unfair”).

One of the instructors nearby was listening in on the conversation – David DeBuire – I’ve got his name in my logbook. He asked me what I was doing early Christmas morning.

Nothing, really – we’re Jewish. Sleeping in, maybe?

“I could give you a checkout then.”

The receptionist protested, but David overruled her.

“Listen, my kids are going to be up at six, tearing open presents and screaming around the tree. Once that’s done, I’m going to be ready to be out of the house for a while.”

So Christmas morning, with frost still on the ground, David and I were circling the prairie south of Denver in Cessna N49858 – a gift of flight from one pilot, a seasoned instructor, to another, just minted.

I took Brian flying that afternoon. His surprise and enjoyment of the flight was gratifying. It felt like I now had my turn to give the gift of flight, to show someone the earth from above. Not from some small round porthole on the side of pressurized metal tube blasting through the stratosphere at 500 mph. But to look out at the expanse of the earth in its fullness. To say “I wonder what’s over there?” and, giving a slight twist to the wheel, to go and find out.

It’s now 25 years later. I’m a flight instructor with somewhere around 1500 hours in the air. And it’s still magic. But as much as I enjoy the magic myself, the real joy still comes from taking someone else up, someone who’s never seen the earth like that. Never seen the hills from above, never known the feeling of being able to casually find the answer to that question of “I wonder what’s over there?” That for me is the gift of flight, handed to me by a stranger on a frosty Christmas morning, 25 years ago.

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