Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’


On Christmas Day 45 years ago, Santa left my presents at my Grandfather’s house in Manila.  My Dad watched with sparkling interest as I unwrapped my first airplane scale models, a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt.  I was 12 years old.

We had no colour TV, DVDs, internet, or computer games.  No computers, even.  The model airplanes filled my world.


Revell H611 Spirnarr



It took me 45 years to fully unwrap that gift. 





My Dad’s delicious stories of World War II dogfights kindled my childhood interest in airplanes.  My son Carlo, of the TOP GUN generation, had his imagination fired up by his own Dad’s airplane stories.  Now we were in this amazing adventure together.

Our airplanes taxied line astern, canopies open, weaving side-to-side.





We held short of the runway with three Cessnas.  Ardmore Tower re-sequenced all of us.  Carlo and I would take off together.  Just like the movies.  



Airborne and in formation, it was Christmas, Fathers Day and birthdays all in one.  We took photos of each other laughing out loud, tears in our eyes.  That unmistakable elliptical wing bridged us, less than one wingspan apart.


Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;





Everything was perfect.  Blazing blue sky, creamy clouds edged in white gold sunlight.  Ecstatic pilots vaulting skyward in classic warbirds, streaming contrails of laughter.  Father and son.


Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of…





High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there… 
I flung my craft through footless halls of air….





I slipped below Carlo, echelon left.  The sun slashed our canopies.  Overhead, towering cumulus raced us to altitude.


Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —





We rolled in tight formation.  Our hearts filled to bursting.  Our faces ached from grinning like schoolboys.




We were having way too much fun.  Suddenly we were over England, and it was the summer of 1940.  Bandits, break right!


DSCN0139 (2)


In the video you can hear Carlo whooping into a barrel roll.  No stiff upper lip now.  “Whoo-hoo!”  Then a loop, aileron roll and steep wingovers left and right.








Mickey Mouse stretched his arms.  Time stilled.


Miles away, Gavin and I pulled hard Gs.  Loop, barrel roll, aileron roll, a full Cuban Eight.  We were doing 300 miles per hour, 4,000 feet per minute in vertical up-lines.  Remember, this is a 72-year old airframe that survived 89 combat missions in World War II.  

We levelled out, snarling low over the Firth of Thames, rocketing past the North Island coast.  I jinked away from flakJust like the Spitfire model in my childhood bedroom.

Then we spotted the Harvard, the Hun in the sun!  Hard climb to his 5 o’clock, bit of left rudder, and a bit of Robert Shaw in the movie ‘Battle of Britain’…






We snapped into a vertical bank, our wings straight up and down as Carlo and JK spiralled low, dropping far below us.  “You can run, kid, but you can’t hide.” 

We took these last two photos of each other at almost exactly the same time.





It was time to return to base, ‘pancake’ in RAF slang.  In less than an hour we had flown almost 80 nautical miles. 

As a final treat we shut down at the NZ Warbirds Association ramp. 


I thought of Santa and my Dad, who started it all.  As the memories streamed past, a fellow from NZ Warbirds took my photo.




A very Happy Christmas to all our readers,

Make a bucketful of dreams come true in the New Year!  



Posted from Manila, Philippines

December 24, 2014



Warbird Adventure Rides



New Zealand Warbirds Association



Lines from High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr

Spitfire pilot, killed in December 1941 at the age of 19


Twenty Five Years of Top Gunning



My Dad and his Delicious Airplane Tales





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Jagdflieger–Fighter Pilot


It happened 5 days before Christmas, 70 years ago.  German Oberleutnant Franz Stigler in a Messerschmitt Bf-109 stalked Lieutenant Charlie Brown’s American B-17 bomber.  Stigler, a fighter pilot with 22 kills, had every reason to hit the trigger button – his beloved brother, also a pilot, was shot down and killed in the Battle of Britain.  The B-17 had just bombed Bremen, Germany.  With one more kill Stigler would get the coveted Knight’s Cross. 




But as he closed to within 20 meters of the strangely silent tail guns of the American bomber, he saw the gunner slumped over his guns, his blood dripping down the barrels and streaming through the air.  The B-17 bomber was a flying wreck, engines dead or dying, tail shredded, huge holes blown through the wings and fuselage by anti-aircraft guns and other German fighters.  Through a tear in the fuselage, Stigler saw crewmen trying to save a man whose leg had been blown off. 

Stigler remembered the warning of his Jagdgeschwader 27 commander, Gustav Rödel.  “You are fighter pilots first, last, always.  If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I’ll shoot you myself." 


Stigler escorted the enemy bomber past the German coast, saluted the American pilot, and dove away. 




He never found out if the American airplane made it back to England.

Then, in 1990, he got a phone call.








Every pilot with a sense of history knows the story.  Stigler had never wanted to fly in combat, but felt compelled to defend his country.  His brother had joined the Luftwaffe against their parents’ wishes.




Brown survived the war and served in the US Foreign Service, in Laos and Vietnam.  After retirement, he spoke at a veteran’s event and was reminded of the German pilot. 

Brown spent four years searching.  Finally he put an ad in a publication for Luftwaffe veterans, seeking the man who spared his life. 

Months later, Brown got a letter:  "Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not?" 

It was from Franz Stigler.


Brown called Stigler, who had moved to Vancouver.  Stigler confirmed details from that encounter over the North Sea that only he could know.


Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown found a deep, spiritual friendship.  One year, Brown organized an emotional reunion of the survivors of his 10-man B-17 crew and their extended families – children, grandchildren, relatives – people who were born and now lived only because Stigler did not shoot down the B-17. 


Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown died within months of each other, in 2008.  Stigler was 92; Brown was 87. 


Stigler’s commanding officer again:  “You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”






Merry Christmas to all our readers here in Flying in Crosswinds.  Both Carlo and I have been extremely busy.  We were not personally affected by the typhoon that devastated part of the Philippines.  Our country needs cheering up.





Carlo and I are both on Christmas leave from our jobs.  Today we flew together for an hour.  And we prepared the airplane – it seems to have volunteered for a logistics role tonight… .




Maligayang Pasko!   



Posted from Manila, December 24, 2013




Other links and references:


An interesting interview with Franz Stigler:



The painting:



The book:


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The Gift of the Magi



We waited to take off.  It was December 21, the day the world would end.  It was the second day of my 2-week home leave.  I had vowed to turn my BlackBerry off and fly every day — therapy for a disturbingly intense year at work.

But it was raining.  In one of the driest, coolest months of the year, a thunderstorm unloaded on Woodland Airfield.  As we ran for our hangars, I quipped that maybe there was something to this Mayan end-of-the-world thing.  The other pilots laughed nervously.





The world survived the brief thunderstorm.  Two Cessnas departed on a mission.  We would be honoring a debt to the tribal hamlet of Poon Bato.


Two years ago the president of our flying club made a forced landing, after his ultralight engine lost power.  He was over rugged, remote terrain — the lava and lahar fields west of Mt. Pinatubo.  He put the airplane down on a river bank in a perfect dead stick landing.  Other ultralight pilots orbited overhead.  Night was falling.





That was when the Aeta tribe people native to the Zambales mountains emerged from the darkening bush, to harbor and protect the downed pilot.  They came to his airplane with pots of rice and their own meager supplies.  He had started climbing a hill to get a cellphone signal.  The Aetas quickly stopped him – the place was named ‘Cobra island’ for a reason.

An overland rescue expedition was organized by the Angeles City Flying Club, with the help of the police detachment at Botolan town, three hours away by truck.  Airplane and pilot were recovered the following day after many challenges.  All that time the Aetas never left the pilot’s side and kept him safe and secure.


Since then the Angeles City Flying Club has expressed its deep gratitude by sending care packages of food, clothes and other goodies to the remote hamlet. 




Poon Bato is an Aeta hamlet on the Botolan river, which ebbs and floods repeatedly throughout the year.  It’s not easy to spot from the air.  The terrain changes constantly.  But a pilot can remember every detail of where he had to put his airplane down.  You don’t forget emergencies like that.




The Aetas live in small grass huts scattered sparsely on the flood plain.  The huts shelter both people and animals.  The plain is studded with what look like small Christmas trees.





Hills and trees pop up everywhere you turn.  After you pass over the huts, you do a full power chandelle, climbing and turning back for another fly-by.  Position reports by radio to the other airplane holding at high cover are vital.

Then it was the other airplane’s turn, short beeline for the hamlet, flashing over the lahar beds and the scrub.  And we were done. RTB.




As we did one last pass, the Aetas were standing beside two carabao carts, waving at us.





The world didn’t end on December 21.  Instead, we flew to a smaller world that has to be rebuilt after every typhoon, in the shadow of one of the most powerful volcanoes on earth.  We acknowledged a gift given by people who had very little to give but themselves.  Tribal people who came out of nowhere to shelter and protect a downed pilot in their grass huts, with their animals.  The Aeta Wise Men of Poon Bato.



Posted from Manila, December 25, 2012.

Mouse over the photos for captions and credits.

Thanks to Terry for the video captures from his GoPro camera.

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It was a tough year.  Intense, exhausting, relentlessly stressful.  In aviation, the mystery of Air France Flight 447 was solved, and sadly.  A well-loved Cabinet Secretary died in an air crash in the Philippines – same sad findings.  We need to be seriously careful out there.  Training fails are the worst kind of fails.  Whether it’s a 20,000-hour ATPL or 10-hour SPL, the license is merely a permit to continue learning.  If you stop, you go, and badly.



Cathay Pacific bumped me up to Diamond status last month.  Upgrades to First when seats are available.  Sadly, it’s like getting a prize from the power or phone company for being a top customer.  The fact that long-haul flights now mean my BlackBerry email is silent for 12-16 hours makes it even more depressing.

I flew in the brand new Thai Airways A380.  It was surprisingly one of the gentlest airplanes I’ve ever been in.  It levitated effortlessly into the air and sailed placidly through turbulence.  Best of all, it was completely silent.  I could hear no engine noise.  Just the gentle rush of air passing by.  Gentle giant.


I closed my office in Bangkok.  After eight years in Thailand, I have come to love the Thais, who are gentle and complicated at the same time, who can be exasperating unless you have the ‘unlock’ key, and who have the most mature ‘live and let live’ Buddhist outlook I have ever seen in a population.

When we close that apartment door for the last time in eight years, I won’t be able to hold it.  It was home.





Earlier this year my sons and I spent a once-in-a-lifetime holiday in Italy.  All the stars, moons and vacation leaves lined up for 10 straight days.  Once in a lifetime.  Easter Mass at the Vatican, superb food and wine in Siena and Tuscany, Alfa Romeos on the Autostrada, and 3,000 years of power, sex and ruin in the Roman Forum.









I was able to spend a day in Germany’s Weinachtmarkts, or Christmas Markets.  Aachen, Bonn and Köln, within an hour of each other by German rail, were more festive and crowded than ever.  Proof that Germany is one of the more vibrant economies in Europe.









Not a bad year, after all, huh! 

On that note, Carlo and I thank you for sharing in our stories in Flying in Crosswinds.  We wish all of you a truly Merry Christmas, in this the year of our good Lord, 2012.






Posted from Manila, December 24, 2012



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Unbounded Christmas Cheer



We can’t believe it either – it’s the night before Christmas Eve.  Where did time go?  It’s been three months since our last post!  And there I was promising myself to do at least one a week.

A hopeless task.


Carlo is teaching more classes at the Ateneo de Manila University.  Research writing, English poetry and drama, 120 freshmen in all.  He is also in his last semester of course work for his master’s degree in literary and cultural studies.

Me?  These past four months have been the most taxing, most grinding months of my 33-year career.  A double-hatted role covering 12 time zones, the occasional crisis (or six), and very little time to fly.

We did get the airplane in fine shape this year.  A brand new propeller, a sparkling new avionics fit, new instrument panel.  Our stories have outstripped the time available to write about them.  I still owe you stories from last year!


We’ll catch up, we promise.  In the meantime, our best wishes to all for a truly Merry Christmas, and a New Year full of joyful journeys and happy homecomings!






Posted on December 24, 2011, from Manila

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It Was Good To Be Going Home




Below, the black-white map of north Germany was growing smaller.  Here and there a village or small town glittered with lights.  The carol singers would be out, knocking on the holly-studded doors to sing Stille Nacht and collect pfennigs for charity.  The Westphalian housewives would be preparing hams and geese.

Four hundred miles ahead of me the story would be the same, the carols in my own language but many of the tunes the same, and it would be turkey instead of goose. But whether you call it Weihnacht or Christmas, it’s the same all over the Christian world, and it was good to be going home.

                                                                          — The Shepherd, Frederick Forsyth


   The Shepherd, original cover artwork








In Frederick Forsyth’s tiny novel, a young pilot flies his De Havilland Vampire jet fighter home on Christmas Eve.  Set in 1957, the year I was born, it is a haunting yet endearing tale.

Forsyth’s pilot flies from Celle, Germany, to RAF Lakenheath, England.  When I first read The Shepherd in 1976, I was entranced by Forsyth’s description of Christmas Eve over northern Europe.


Swinging over Celle airfield at 5,000 feet, I straightened up and watched the needle on my electric compass settle happily down on a course of 265 degrees. The nose was pointing toward the black freezing vault of the night sky, studded with stars so brilliant they flickered their white fire against the eyeballs.  Below, the black-ad-white map of north Germany was growing smaller, the dark masses of the pine forests blending into the white expanses of the fields.


It made me want to visit Germany in Christmas time.  I have no ties there, no relatives.  I just wanted to see the famous Christmas Markets, try the traditional Wesphalian hams and geese.





Now, 34 years later, … .


It was snowing when I stepped out of Cologne’s Hauptbahnhof.  Outside the train station, famous Köln Cathedral loomed up into the snowfall.  Pure magic.

Cologne Cathedral 

This was the only building in Cologne that survived World War II.  The Christmas Market nearby had live bands under the tallest tree in all of Rhineland.

Weihnachtsmarkt behind Cologne Cathedral



Then there was the ham.

Westphalian schinken!


Westphalian schinken was everything I wanted!  Crisp, juicy, just short of being sharply salty.  I wolfed serving after serving.  The bread went to the birds.


Cheerful grillers at Cologne's Neumarkt 


Forsyth didn’t write about glühwein!  Mulled red wine, steaming with spices, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla.

"Refill bitte, danke!"


Glühwein made me glow with warmth, as advertised! 

Each Christmas Market had its own unique glühwein mug — the twin-spired one of the Weihnachtsmarkt at the famous Cologne cathedral; the white Engel mug from Cologne’s Neumarkt; the round fat pot from Bonn, the embossed classic from the Heurmarkt in Köln Altstadt; and Berlin’s lavishly decorated mug from the Gendarmenmarkt.

Glühwein mugs



Christmas crafts were on sale everywhere.  Most amazing were the glass globes decorated inside with magical winter and Christmas scenes.  How do they do that?!

Glass ornaments, Cologne Christmas Market


Glass ornaments, Cologne  

Cologne had not one Weihnachtsmarkt, but five.  My favorite was the Heurmarkt, in the old town, Köln Altstadt.

Classic German architecture at Köln Altstadt.

Köln gnome

Hot choco in Cologne's Heurmarkt 


Cologne was minus 5 Celsius that night, and snowing.

Real pine, real snow  :)

Cologne, Germany

"Cool" car, says Carlo





Bonn is only 10 minutes away from Cologne by train.  Of course I had to see John Le Carre’s Small Town in Germany.  It had a petite, quaint Christmas Market. 

Bonn Weihnachtsmarkt


I hurried through Bonn’s Weihnachtsmarkt, buffeted by heavy snow. 

Snow and freezing rain, Bonn


I did get a few mementos, including a tin airplane carousel.

Probably made in China





Then there was Berlin.  I am entranced with Berlin, its history, its ghosts and the line of bricks that run across the city — the trace of the Berlin Wall.

Zimmerstrasse covered in snow, and the only remaining segment of the Wall still standing.  Gestapo Headquarters stood here during the war.

Checkpoint Charlie, standing just inside former West Berlin

In front of the Reichstag

Former East Berlin Volks Polizei Trabant

DSC_0799-1 DSC_0610-1 


Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt was upscale and brutally cold.  Copious amounts of glühwein and Euro bills solved both problems.

Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden, near Bandenburg Tor

 Berlin Weihnachtsmarkt  Christmas ornaments, Berlin

Christmas ornaments, Berlin





Scratch two more items off my Bucket List.  Westphalian ham, a white Christmas (well, a week before) and Germany’s Christmas Markets. 

Seen from my train window, Northern Germany


Traveling across frozen Germany by train was a fortuitous choice.  Airliners were grounded, but I rode in a Deutsch Bahn carriage with uninterrupted cell phone and wireless internet … at over 200 kilometers an hour.

Hamm, Westfalen


Magical as northern Europe was, “Eurowinter” and its sub-zero temperatures is certainly not home.  As I write this, now on home leave with my sons, a dear pilot friend is prepping a new Airbus A320 in Toulouse for a ferry flight home.  He was stranded for two days in Schipol and Charles de Gaulle due to severe winter weather, and will barely make the ferry flight home by Christmas Eve.


To Windwalker – my flying mentor and ‘Shepherd’ — and to all our other readers and contributors, come home safely to a blessed and safe Christmas.






Posted from Manila, December 23, 2010  









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Christmas Loot Bag


Santa Claus, himself a pilot, fattens an aviator’s heart!

Christmas loot!





Len Morgan’s DC-3 is packed with illustrations and incredible anecdotes about my beloved Gooney Bird.

Classic airplane, by a classic writer


Len filled pages with richly humorous anecdotes of his first training flights in an airplane that confounds pilots even while merely rolling on the ground.

Other stories include the DC-3, built for 24 passengers, that loaded 74 refugees out of China.  Another tale told of a C-47 (wartime DC-3) riddled by enemy fire.  It ditched into the sea, pilot hauling back on the yoke to flare onto the waves.  BOOM-SPLASH! The airplane bounced back into the air, and the pilot realized that he had gained a few more minutes of flight.  They flew like that, skipping the battered airplane across the waves, until they got to land.

Another DC-3’s damaged wing was replaced with the only available spare – and flew – flew! –with a DC-2 wing on one side and a DC-3 wing on the other.  Forever known as the DC-2-and-a-half.

In the back half of the book, Morgan even sneaked in the entire Pilot’s Operating Handbook.

Morgan flew the golden age of early Douglas transports.  When satellites were Sputniks and pilots navigated via aural radio ranges – blind approaches in snow and fog, listening intently as static poured into their headsets, following faint bread crumbs of Morse code to the unseen runway.

I found this book in the 1980s in a used book bin in Manila.  It made me fall in love with the DC-3.  I bought, built and collected DC-3 scale models.  I lost the book a decade later.  Another ten years passed, the internet was invented, I found a pristine copy on Amazon.com, and Christmas is merrier this year!



Winged Samurai, by historian Henry Sakaida, is a companion volume to Sakai’s autobiography, Samurai!.  Loaded with rare photos — Sakai’s fellow pilots in the Tainan Kokutai, the airfields at Lae, actual aerial dogfights, the American pilots who flew against him.

Saburo Sakai


Sakai was the highest-scoring Japanese fighter pilot to survive World War II.  Veteran of dogfights over China, the Philippines, Dutch East Indies and the South Pacific, he was wounded grievously in the right eye and brain by .30cal machine gun bullets, then flew his Zero fighter hundreds of miles back to base.  He fought in many more dogfights after that, blind in one eye.

Sakaida’s well-researched volume is a genuine treasure from a time that today’s generation of Airbus drivers have never known.



Other goodies!  Rust in Peace is a lavishly illustrated volume of World War II battle sites and artefacts across the Pacific, some of them very close to home.

The foam plugs will keep birds from nesting inside our airplane’s engine bay.

Airplane stuff


Replacement instrument panel switches comply with Cessna’s service bulletins.  My landing light switch recently shorted and turned red hot.  Interestingly, the oil line to the oil pressure gauge is just above the switch, behind the instrument panel.

The Service Manual for the Cessna 152 is a must for the aircraft owner.  The Wild Geese, about mercenaries in the Congo, became a movie in the 1980s, starring Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore, Hardy Kruger, and a DC-3 Dakota, which is really why I loved the novel and the movie.



My niece Nichole found Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machine on the sidewalk, discarded by someone cleaning house.  Balsa parts, replicas of hand-drawn renaissance-era building diagrams on parchment paper.

The Da Vinci lode


Why would anyone throw any of this stuff away?



Posted from San Francisco, 4 December, 2010.

Next:  Robin Olds, Fighter Pilot









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