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On Dasher, on Dancer, on Dover ... flights offer Santa's-eye view of holiday lights

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace
  • 436th AW Public Affairs
The night sky looked calm and tranquil from a gently soaring aircraft, miles above the bustle, pitter-patter and laughing children, who could faintly be seen in the small Eastern seaboard towns below.

The day was Wednesday and Christmas was still two weeks away. The craft flying over Central Delaware was a small Cessna, rather than a sleigh, and it departed the Aero Club on Dover Air Force Base, rather than the North Pole. Still, in many ways, this must be how Santa feels as he draws near to Dover every year.

To experience the feeling of Santa and be able to bring the written experience to Team Dover, I booked myself on a Christmas Lights flight.

The "sleigh" left Dover AFB and headed North over Rt. 9 to Smyrna, then looped around and headed South over Rt. 13 to Camden then returned to Dover. While heading in both directions fabulous displays of magnificent colors, lights and decorations could be seen below.

To add to the cheer, the pilot, John O'Connor, offered a few extra sights.

"If there is an area people would like to see and we can fit it into the flight, we are happy to accommodate," said Mr. O'Connor, who honored my request of an additional loop around the Green at Dover to get another view of the light display on Lockerman Blvd.

Mr. O'Connor has been flying his "sleigh" for about 5 years and said he works among some great pilots.

Mr. O'Connor is not the only seasoned "Santa" working for the Aero Club. In fact, the club has flown nearly 150 Christmas Light Flights since they started the program in 2001, said Joe Nickle, a fellow Aero Club pilot. In 2006 alone, 54 sleighs were launched from the base for the Christmas Light Flights and 115 Dover Team members got to experience the beauty of holiday decorations from the sky.

Mr. Nickle, shared his most memorable Christmas Light Flight, which happened about three years ago.

"One flight I did ended with a marriage proposal written in lights," he said. He described soaring over the city, looking down and seeing the proposal twinkling in Christmas colors down below. "Oh ... and she said, 'yes.'"

Another passenger, Shizue Toma, was along on the same flight. Throughout the flight, Ms. Toma looked absolutely taken by it all and had a twinkle in her eye which matched the view below.

Ms. Toma, who described her age as "being born just prior to World War II," said she felt like a small child again.

Ms. Toma grew up in Japan and in the years of her childhood, Christmas was not a popular holiday, she said. Still, though she had no childhood memories to draw from, she said all the Christmas movies she has seen through the years don't begin to compare to the experience of seeing Christmas from Santa's view.

Like Ms. Toma, the Aero Club compared their flights to the traditional viewing of driving around in the family car, looking at Christmas lights.

"Some areas like downtown Dover are usually lit up very well, and from the air, you can see the whole town at one time," said Mr. Nickle. "Seeing the lights from the air also gives you the big view of displays and allows you to see which areas have displays you may wish to see again from the ground."

Though Santa has Rudolph to guide him through storms, the sleighs that depart the base are not as fortunate.

"If the weather would make people uncomfortable or limit the visibility, we will reschedule the flight if possible," said Mr. Nickle. "For cancellations, we ask that folk cancel as soon as they can. (This) allows us to fit in additional people or prevent pilots from waiting for too long between flights."

Team members normally get to fly in groups of three, depending on weight and balance considerations, said Mr. Nickle. If the group is bigger than three people, the Aero Club could schedule another aircraft to follow along or make two flights. Also, occasionally the Aero Club gets the chance to use a larger aircraft.

"The night was truly amazing," said Ms. Toma. "These are memories I'll carry with me until my final days - tonight, I was a 6-year-old child!"

The Dover community doesn't have to take Ms. Toma's word for it, though.

The Dover Aero Club offers the flights every night through Dec. 30 from dusk to 8:30 p.m. for $40 for the first person and for $5 each additional person. Any DoD card holder and their guests can board a sleigh and experience the feelings for themselves by calling 677-6365.