A unique example of the Magic of Christmas will be in evidence in Spokane on Saturday when 66 disadvantaged kids plus their personal elves and a supporting entourage board one of Alaska Airlines largest and newest 737-900s, designated "Santa 1," for a Fantasy Flight to the North Pole.
But the excitement that surrounds Spokane International Airport for this annual event transcends even this special holiday and instead represents the "magic dust" of human caring that settles over airline employees and the local volunteers who make the kids' trip of a lifetime possible.
This will be the sixth year that an Alaka plane, with employees
|Alaska pilot Eric Hrivnak and friend
from both Alaska and Horizon Air joining the organizers, has taken off for a 40 minute flight with the kids ages 4 to 10 who are chosen from shelters and community programs in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
And it will be the third year that Eric Hrivnak, an Alaska pilot for more than 13 years, has been the cockpit guide for the flight to Santa's home.
He says he decided early on that "I could make it a lot more fun," but confesses he's "never seen anything like what happens with these kids. I saw a counselor crying as she told me of one of her foster kids, 'It's the first time I've ever seen him smile.'"
Steve Paul, "Elf Bernie,"
Steve Paul, president of Northwest North Pole Adventures, the 501c3 that he has guided for more than six years as the organization that puts on the event, explained that the children selected each year are homeless or from transitional living centers or adoption groups.
Each child, as they all get off the bus that has picked them up for their trip to the airport, is greeted by their personal elf and given a t-shirt that says "I believe" on the front and "I've been to the North Pole" on the back. Each also receives a special-issue passport with their picture and the picture of them with their elf.
Paul, who is "Elf Bernie" at the event, explains that Hrivnak, the pilot, once the plane has been aloft and is ready to land, helps bring the children into the process of breaking through the North Pole 'protective barrier.'
The kids pull down their window shades, do a chant, each waves a magic light wand they were given as they boarded and then Hrivnak deploys the engine thrusters when Santa and Rudolph appear on the radar screen, providing the confirmation that the "Santa 1" flight has entered North Pole airspace.
Minutes later, the plane lands and the kids have arrived at the North Pole -- in reality, a decorated hangar at the far end of the Spokane airport.
The kids leave the plane and walk with their elves down the red carpet, lined with more elves on both sides, and then encounter a fantasy come true: a magician, musicians and face painters, as well as an endless supply of snacks, games, and arts and crafts, plus live reindeer. And, of course, each child receives some specialone-on-one time with the Man himself.
That visit with Santa is made forever memorable for each child because, as Paul explains, they were all asked for a list of what they'd like from Santa, and "we took those lists and bought each of them a toy from that list. So as each child tells Santa what they want, he can reach into his bag and pull that present out for them. The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is just priceless."
Bobbie Egan, Alaska's media relations director who participated in the flight last year for the first time, said "I was moved beyond words. Once you see how the lives of these kids are impacted by this experience, the temptation is to want to do it everywhere."
Local Spokane area visibility for the annual event has helped grow cash and in-kind donations to a budget of $175,000 this year, with Alaska remaining the largest corporate donor, but to that has been added a new $10,000 donor and "many new $3,000-$5,000 donors," Paul said.
The Spokane Fantasy Flight isn't the only one that occurs. In fact, United Airlines, which conducts such flights in 20 cities and has been doing them for 23 years, most for children with life-threatening or terminal illnesses, had 2013's first North Pole flights last weekend in Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio and Cleveland.
But Spokane is the smallest city in which such Fantasy Flights occur and has thus brought a community focus that would be difficult in a major city. And this is the only Alaska Airlines North Pole flight.
United had actually launched the Spokane Fantasy Flight in 1998, but the jetliners didn't take off, rather just taxiing around
the airport. But the event had virtually no visibility beyond the non-profits involved, at first the Spokane YWCA, and the kids and elves who participated.
In 2008, Alaska leaped in to take over the event after a United snafu left no plane available for Spokane. Employees of Alaska, which of course is more familiar with the North Pole than any airline, asked "why can't we actually take off with the kids?" So in fact they did, carrying 60 kids and their elves aloft for a 40 minute flight to Santa's home.
Alaska CEO Brad Tilden says the carrier loves its involvement with the event. "Reaching these deserving children in this special way touches the hearts of every one of our employees who participates."
Despite the uniqueness of the event, it got no visibility until two years later when my friend, Blythe Thimsen, editor of Spokaneand Coeur d'Alene Living, told me about her excitement at getting to be an elf that year and that she'd be writing about in her magazine, providing the first media look at the event. But she was kind enough to let me upstage the magazine's publication date with my first column on the event.
Two years ago, KCPQ-TV, Channel 13, in Seattle sent a crew to cover the event and produced a version for CNN, which thus brought national visibility.
The first Fantasy Flight occurred in London, England in December 1991, when United Airlines donated a 727 to fly one hundred children from an orphanage to Lapland, Rovaneimi Finland for reindeer sleigh rides and a visit to "Father Christmas Village". The success of the "Fantasy Flight" concept gradually expanded to over forty six cities, providing needy and ill children with an experience of a lifetime.
Few have summed up the Spokane event better than Gail Spaeth, an Alaska flight attendant who was part of the crew for the first Alaska North Pole flight: "This didn't just make our Christmas, this was our Christmas," she said. "These kids don't have much, so to be a part of something that will provide such a great memory for them is just amazing."