Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Santa skips the sled

Delights inner-city kids with hazardous helicopter appearance

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Let me begin by saying Santa is extremely happy he still has all his limbs.

The Jolly Old Elf, as portrayed by a middle-aged, overweight newspaper columnist, had something of a near-miss Monday when he got a little overexcited after being transported by helicopter to a Christmas party at the airport.

This unique holiday adventure began when about 150 grades 2 and 3 students from three inner-city elementary schools -- Dufferin, Mulvey and Strathcona -- were bused to the airport fire hall for the first-ever Santa's Test Flight bash.

In previous years, the Winnipeg Airports Authority has given inner-city kids a chance to meet Santa and make some joyful noise on board a luxury jet at 36,000 feet, but this year, there wasn't a plane to be found.

But the lack of a jumbo jet wasn't about to deter Christine Payne, the authority's director of communications and public affairs.

"I figured if we can't go to the North Pole, we'll bring the North Pole to the kids," Christine explained. "So I pitched it to the people at STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society) helicopter ambulance and they said: "Absolutely! It's right up our alley."

"It's all about the kids and giving them a special, magical day."

So while a small army of six- to eight-year-old children was inhaling a pizza lunch and being whipped into a holiday frenzy by Fred Penner, who sang The Cat Came Back, and Sean Quigley, who shot to stardom with his YouTube rendition of Little Drummer Boy, Santa was at the STARS hangar slipping into his "flight suit."

After squeezing into his red-velvet ensemble, a wardrobe emergency occurred when Santa's belt burst. Fortunately, flight paramedic Liz Speers was standing by with a safety pin and duct tape. "I saved Christmas," Liz chirped. And she did.

Next, Santa was compelled by federal regulations to sit through a safety video to ensure he didn't accidentally eject a helicopter door during the two-minute flight.

As you know, Santa prefers to fly on a sleigh powered by eight tiny reindeer, but for Monday's soiree, he was a passenger on a state-of-the-art BK117 Eurocopter with twin engines, each of which pumps out 750 horsepower.

Santa asked pilots Jason Johnson and Martin Lustyk if their chopper -- which happens to be fire-engine red -- compared with Santa's traditional mode of conveyance.

"No," Jason conceded, politely, "It's not nearly fast enough. Santa gets around the world in one night, while we can only go a couple of hours and we have to refuel."

With Santa safely buckled in, moments later we landed on the tarmac outside the airport fire hall, where we were greeted by 150 kids who could not have been more pumped up if they were forcibly injected with sugar and fired out of a cannon.

To say they were making a joyful noise is like saying Winnipeg hockey fans are mildly disappointed by the NHL lockout. This was the kind of event that not only warms your heart, it also shatters your eardrums.

Before getting off the chopper, Santa was reminded over and over that he should "bend over and don't wave when you get out because the blades will still be spinning!"

Question: So what did Santa do?

Answer: He hopped off the helicopter, stood up, waved at the kids and yelled: "Merry Christmas!"

Only then did he remember the blades spinning overhead, at which point he doubled over in a (bad word) heartbeat, which caused his hat to fly off his head. Luckily, one of the pilots, Martin, snatched it up and, with a smile, slapped it back on Santa's empty head.

Safe and sound, Santa and his hat joined the party to deliver a vital message -- the air pressure, wind currents and prevailing meteorological conditions over Winnipeg have created perfect gift-giving conditions for Christmas Eve.

The kids were delighted to hear this, a fact they demonstrated by shrieking Santa's name at a decibel level that would deafen whale pods in the Atlantic Ocean, then swarming all over him en masse to deliver heartfelt hugs, bellow out their gift lists and demand to know whether Santa was fully aware of what street they live on.

The principal of Strathcona Community School said seeing Santa arrive on a STARS helicopter ambulance was a gift these kids won't soon forget.

"They are beyond excited," Anastasia Sych-Yereniuk told Santa, who was thronged by dozens of thrilled children. "In light of last Friday's tragedy, this is such a wonderful event. It's the best field trip these kids have had."

Perhaps the moment Santa enjoyed the most, however, was when a gaggle of kids, without prompting, looked up at Santa and screamed: "Santa, you're too skinny!"

As soon as he gets back to the North Pole, Santa is going to share those words with Mrs. Claus. But first he's going to stop at McDonald's for a double cheeseburger. Merry Christmas!

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2012 0


Updated on Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 9:13 AM CST: adds video

9:33 AM: replaces photo

9:47 AM: removes video

7:54 PM: Adds video

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