Duane Sherrill

“Look out! He’s going to crash!” a man yelled out, pointing to the sky as the small plane swooped over the top of the building, clearing the mall by mere feet.

People hit the ground like they were about to get strafed by a fighter plane. Men, women and children all grabbed a piece of parking lot blacktop as the roar of the motor passed overhead, the wash of wind from its wings in its tow. Then came the whine of the engine as the aircraft climbed skyward at a dizzying arc, gaining altitude even quicker than it had lost it moments before. In an instant it was just a dim dot in the blue December sky.

“What was that?” the man who had sounded the alarm asked as he brushed the parking lot off of his ugly Christmas sweater. “And why didn’t you duck? Are you brave or just crazy?”

I gave the man a grin as I helped brush what appeared to be old chewing gum from the fuzz of his sweater. “Neither,” I replied. “I know the pilot. He was just showing out. You couldn’t shoot him down.”

“Stop right there, Sherrill!” I can hear you say as you put down your wassail. “Didn’t you refer to this in passing in your learning to fly column a few months back?”

Good catch. That’s exactly right. I referred to the great Santa incident at the end of the column this past summer where I revealed how I had learned to pilot a plane. However, I didn’t elaborate, seeing I was waiting for it to become seasonal like pumpkin spice. Well, it’s seasonal now. It’s Christmas, and we all need a good Christmas laugh to conclude 2020.

While things were pretty exciting on the ground that day, legend has it that they were even more interesting inside the cockpit of Bob’s plane where he and Santa Claus were making their way to the mall – via the air, of course. The plan was for Bob to pilot his plane above the hundreds of people in the mall parking lot and then for Santa, a trained skydiver, to jump from a few thousand feet and land inside a big circle that had been lined off for his arrival.

As you can expect, the parking lot was abuzz with excitement. Santa Claus was literally going to arrive from the sky, almost as if he had jumped from his sleigh. He would then land right on the “x,” provided things didn’t go wrong with his chute causing him to bounce like a bag of wet cement – or in his case – a bowl full of jelly.

As I stood there in the chill of the December morning, something told me things would not go as planned. I knew Bob well. Bob taught me to fly. Bob also taught me to fear flying.

The first time I flew with Bob he decided he was going to say “hello” to some friends at a store we were passing over as we were leaving town. The way Bob said “hello” in a plane was to take the aircraft into a nose dive, pulling up seconds before crashing. That would gave his friends that “whooshing” sound, letting them know Bob had said hello.

Have you ever took a valley in the road too quick? You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when that happens? Well, now imagine a power dive from several thousand feet. Not only does your stomach turn over but the ground gets big quicker than you think. Well, it’s not that it’s getting bigger, it’s just getting closer. That’s the same thing I once told my friend Charlie when we were out chasing a tornado years ago.

“Duane, that tornado is sure getting bigger,” he said as we sat watching the twister throw up debris as it hit the ground.

I slammed my car into reverse and did a Rockford (Google it) and gunned it as I finished the 180. “It’s not getting bigger, Charlie. It’s getting closer!”

The same thing goes with airplanes and nearly crashing. Anyway, knowing Bob’s barnstorming tendencies and knowing there was a huge crowd to play for, I had a sinking feeling something would be up. And, my suspicions were rewarded when he buzzed the crowd, leaving me the lone person standing in the parking lot much like George C. Scott in the movie "Patton" when the German fighter strafed the base.

Inside the plane, things got messy. Who would have thought it but the forces that bear on the body from a power climb in a plane are way different from those you get jumping out of a plane. For Santa this meant, well, he tossed his cookies, um, and milk. I’m sure the moment he jumped out of Bob’s plane was the best moment of his life. He would live, well, provided the parachute opened – which it did. Santa made a pinpoint landing despite having a soiled suit. Mommy wasn’t kissing that Santa Claus anytime soon.

Unfortunately for Bob, some people just don’t have the Christmas spirit. It seems some Grinch out there got the N-number from his plane (it was so low it was easy to see it) and reported him to the FAA. It seems the FAA takes a dim view of buzzing a crowd of people so they took his pilot’s license. Bah Humbug.

That was the last year Santa would skydive into the mall parking lot. I guess after the Santa incident that year it was just too hard to get volunteers for the job. I’m thinking Santas talk about that kind of thing in their workshops. See what I did there? Santa. Workshop.

Anyway, this year, if you happen to bellow to Santa from the other side of his protective glass or tell him what you want for Christmas by shouting it through your N95 mask, just remember, being Santa isn’t easy.