The Liberty Gazette
December 22, 2015Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Santa’s helpers don’t always dress in red velvety elfin-wear. Sometimes their attire is a more of a blueish-purple, or brown hue. It’s peak season for the elves of Federal Express and UPS; the latter now forecasting delivery of 430 million packages this Christmas.
What a busy and challenging time of year this is for all air freight operators and pilots. The work increases 60 percent over other times of the year so the companies hire seasonal labor to handle the volume of packages. About 50,000 people are working temporary jobs with UPS to help deliver or work in sort facilities such as Louisville, Kentucky and Rockford, Illinois. FedEx’s seasonal work means lots of jobs in Memphis, Tennessee.
Tonight their company jets will fly thousands of gifts from regional distribution and sort centers in major cities to hub cities, and then transfer all those presents to other cargo jets as "feeders" bound for smaller cities, and eventually drivers will haul them in trucks to their destinations underneath Christmas trees across the country.
Pilots on the feeder routes will fly a split morning and evening shift, making their way out from the regional hub with several stops along the way, arriving at the outstation by mid-morning. Then in the evening the crews will hopscotch back to the regional hub, arriving in time for the packages they’ve picked up to be put on bigger jets departing for the major sort centers.
During the three months leading up to Christmas Santa’s pilots get to log a lot of flight time to help move the excess volume. By the time Christmas Eve rolls around, some freight pilots have pretty much maxed out on the number of hours they can legally fly for hire during the year.
The freight carriers try hard to deliver all packages labeled "Christmas" by Christmas Eve. This year UPS says if a package gets in their next-day-air system by December 23rd, they’ll deliver it in time for present-opening.
One Christmas Eve, because all my fellow company pilots had reached their legal for-hire flying limit, we, the Learjet crew, ended up flying into smaller airports where jets don’t normally land.
At the airport in Payson, Arizona just as we finished unloading the boxes a local law man stuck his head in the door of the airplane and began his inquisition.
"Excuse me, but do you know how fast you were going when you landed?"
"We crossed the fence at 123 knots."
"Hmm, that’s what my radar gun said, too."
He’d been having coffee at the airport cafe, heard us announce our arrival on the airport’s radio frequency, and he and his friends dashed out to clock us with his radar gun on our approach and landing.
"Well seein’ as it’s Christmas and you being Santa’s helpers and all," he grinned, "I guess I’ll let it slide this time."
We ended up back at the Phoenix airport late at night on Christmas Eve, exhausted from several weeks of intense flying schedules, and after 15 years of this I can tell you that on Christmas Day Santa isn’t the only one settling down for a long winter’s nap. Most of Santa’s helpers do, too.