United Airlines’ 25th annual Fantasy Flight lifts the spirits of military families

Story by Brian Marks • Photos by Ted Soqui

Mr. and Mrs. Claus (top right) welcomed a plane full of military children to an LAX maintenance hangar transformed into the North Pole

For all the joy and cheer associated with the holidays, it can also be a stressful time exacerbated by peak-season travel. Flying home means dealing with massive crowds and security lines that move at a glacial pace, followed by hours in a cramped seat on an overbooked plane.

But for 130 children of military service members, a Dec. 1 visit to LAX offered special cause for excitement: a trip to the North Pole. Santa’s sleigh ride (in this case, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner) might have been a little bumpy, but the group made it to the top of the world (United’s LAX maintenance hangar) in about an hour — surely record time.

This year’s Fantasy Flight marked the 25th year that United Airlines has flown groups of children to the North Pole. Past flights have served children dealing with illness, disabilities, or poverty. This year’s passengers were affiliated with Blue Star Mothers, for moms serving in the military, and the Iraq/Afghanistan veterans advocacy group Wounded Heroes of America.

The kids arrived to LAX by bus and sang Christmas carols on the way to the terminal, where they were serenaded by a choir of TSA agents performing a hodgepodge medley of songs by Stevie Wonder, The Black Eyed Peas and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”

“Their families make such big sacrifices so that we can enjoy things like this,” said Griffith Browning, who helped build the North Pole environment. “I think it’s so important that we recognize them, because so often their families are separated during the holidays.”

The interior of the plane was festively decorated with ornaments and tinsel and little snowflakes pasted on windows that children couldn’t look out of due to unusual “solar flares,” except to see some cloud tops and snowy peaks (including one that looked a lot like Mount Whitney). After a bit of turbulence attributed to “snow bumps,” the 787 made its final stop at the unseasonably warm North Pole, where kids filed into a large tent for a holiday banquet.

Getting to fly in a huge airplane was one of the main attractions for many of the children, but it was almost old hat for one of the more boisterous kids, Kaden Stinson.

“I’ve flown in planes a thousand times,” explained Stinson, whose father is a military recruiter. “He gets people into the Air Force, but he’s at work today.”

Another of the visiting children, Danaka Mann, said both her mother and father are in the military.

“I actually forgot what they do,” said Mann, who was looking forward to the games and activities scheduled for after the banquet. “I usually like to make gingerbread houses with my family at Christmas.”

Of course no excursion to the North Pole would be complete without visiting Santa, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus waited patiently on modest thrones to meet the incoming children. David Tomb and Michelle Botkin have been playing the role for three years of Fantasy Flights.

“It’s always been very rewarding,” said Tomb. “It’s a tremendous amount of work, and it’s physically exhausting and emotionally exhausting. But when my head hits the pillow the night of the Fantasy Flight, it’s the best sleep I’ve ever had. I feel so wonderful.”

Air Force Tech Sgt. Jonathan Velasquez, who for 16 years has worked with military chaplains to assess airman morale, joined the Fantasy Flight as a military liaison.

“I think giving the kids something that they can take back with them is important,” said Velazquez. “It creates these fond memories for the children and the crew. It’s definitely needed.”