The Flight of the Pilgrims

The construction paper Indian headband was festooned with crayon-decorated paper feathers, hand-colored in orange and brown. The boy under it had the whirlwind dishevelment of preschoolers, with boundless energy and activity pulling clothing awry, and he stood staring wide-eyed at the airport equivalent of a Disney character–the airline pilot.


His beleaguered mom, holding a baby on one hip while attempting to fold up a stroller, says, “He’s the one who will fly the airplane for us!”

“Police man!” The boy chirps. You laugh at that. The pilgrims–literally, in the pint-sized dynamo wearing crayon feathers–are flying: it’s the holiday season.

“I can help with either the baby or the stroller,” I say, realizing that I’m not even halfway qualified to operate the Byzantine affair of joints and latches that fold-up strollers have become. But I’ve also spent a whole flight day with baby puke or worse drying on my uniform, so I’m more willing to take on the stroller.

We'll remind you of the proper procedure after you've successfully accomplished it.

The average business traveler, typically posing as studiously bored and self-assured, couldn’t hold a candle to pilgrim mom, juggling kids, strollers, car seats and bags.

And that’s because unlike the straphanger biz flyer, the pilgrims are not simply going from point to point, conceding their presence to the process of travel–flight, in our case–grudgingly, and with neither wonder nor trepidation.

But in the kid’s eyes, wide and clear, there was the wonder of Thanksgiving, turkeys, family; who even knows what flight actually is, but it’s bound to be magic!

“Can I give you this?” I say, digging into my suitcase. I’ve been dragging this bulky thing around for weeks, figuring when the families start their holiday migration, I could give it to someone who could use it.

“It’s a car seat cover,” I say. “you don’t want her” I point to the little one still on her hip, smiling almost slyly, “car seat getting grimy in the cargo hold.”


And the cover has taken up most of the spare space in my bag. Darling Bride was going to throw it out, because our “baby” is now a teenager. I said no–not just to the throwing out, but also to my membership in the parent club concerned with such things. Cute baby, too. She deserves a clean car seat.

“Are you serious?” mom asks, looking over the bag almost perfectly sized for the car seat among her pile of hand carried bags.

Well, yeah I am serious. I actually need to get down the jet bridge myself, and get on with preflight, fuel loads, landing weight, takeoff thrust (we’ll use MAX and don’t forget the wet runway correction), weather enroute, systems downgrades and setting the jet up for flight.

But first, I can share a pilgrim moment myself.

“Well only if you want,” I say. “We always used this, and it even makes it easy to carry and retrieve from baggage claim.” I miss those days, our years of travel with our little one, a sweet girl like the one in her arms. Now she’s a teenager, 5′ 8″ and of course still wonderful as ever, but dads still get wistful sometimes about good old times.

“Sure,” she says. “Thanks!” I stash her car seat in the bag, zipping it deftly, though not as smoothly as her stroller disassembly but still. I attach the bag tag the agent hands me.

“You’re good to go,” I say, glad that my bag’s finally unstuffed. “Tell the pilgrims at your Thanksgiving dinner I said hello,” I tell the pre-schooler in the construction paper head dress. He still just stares, and I only wish I knew what he was thinking.


But best to get on board before the spell wears off, before he dashes off in perpetual motion, in flight, imaginary or real.

I’ll take care of the real part, I decide, walking down the empty jet bridge to the cockpit. We’ll take him, his family, the elderly folks in wheel chairs cued up at the gate for pre-boarding, the college students with their books and backpacks, military men and women; everyone–we’ll do more than just fly.

It’s a holiday pilgrimage to family and home, tradition, reunion, togetherness. More than just a flight, we’ll make a passage together.

Okay, as soon as they all deplane safely into the arms of family and friends, I’ll turn right around and retrace the flight path with more pilgrims, connecting them with the places and things that matter to them.

Crowded terminals, packed flights, cranky kids, beleaguered moms, family, holiday and finally home. That’s the flight of the pilgrims, an annual rite that often ain’t pretty, but always has it’s windfalls. Like my little headdress friend, and our mutual admiration for the costumes we each wore.

From now until sometime after New Years, air travel becomes more than just flight. Since I fly year round, I was going to be here anyway, but somehow there’s just more to it right now. Maybe it just seems more meaningful at either end, and maybe it really is. Could be sharing space with believers in pilgrims, or the mirrored reflections of such things in our own lives playing out anew in those making their way across the country this season.

Something to think about at level off. For now, time to get ready for flight.

DFW ramp dusk


22 Responses to “The Flight of the Pilgrims”

  1. karin walkey Says:

    Hi Chris,

    Do you respond to email? I’m just studying for my F/A test on Monday and wanted to know if you could answer a few questions for me. Karin Frances Walkey Stormont Dundas & Glengary

    (613) 454-5283 (613) 257-9798

    • Sure– just email me at “Chris at JetHeadLive dot com.” That’s a verbal recitation to sidestep the bots cruising for spam destinations, get it?

      I’m not sure I’d be much help with F/A questions, but I’ll try …

  2. Randy Sohn Says:

    Yup, like Paul Soderlind told me once, “that’s why they give airlines names – so you can tell’em apart, cuz they’re all alike”.

  3. paulmlally Says:

    Pitch perfect, meaningful and tender. Thanks for your posts, especially here at Thanksgiving.

  4. Great post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Certainly provides some great perspective for the traveling public and the valiant men and women that see them through to their destinations.

    Thank you for what you do!

  5. Randy Sohn Says:

    And Chris, that >>I tell the pre-schooler in the construction paper head dress<< of yours reminded me of one who'd stared wide-eyed at the gauges and diais in our 747's cockpit and said "Wow, that's a LOT of dials?" and I replied "Yeah, well, I try not to look at them all at once". Like you, I just wish I knew what he was thinking.

    • That’s too funny! I’ll have to use that one when youngsters get a look at the warning test Christmas tree effect.

      When passengers are deplaning and say something like “good job,” I like to tell them, “I’m thinking about doing it for a living.”

  6. roberthenryfischat Says:

    Reblogged this on robert's space and commented:
    pls add mevas.

  7. Score one! I’ll bet anything that little boy now wants to be a pilot when he grows up. And I suspect that more pilots, doing more of this sort of ‘outreach’, could do more for aviation than any number of Disney movies, merchandising and mass-produced sequels.

    • Lego Spaceman Says:

      Right now he wants to be pilot. Next week, after he sees a football game, he’ll want to be a football player. Next month, after a fire truck roars down the street, he will want to be a firefighter. That’s the magic of a pre-schooler, they want to be everything. From professional skateboarder to doctor to airline pilot to a ninja.

  8. […] pilgrims, Thanksgiving travel, travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  9. Thank you for this. ❤

  10. Bill Brandt Says:

    Nice story, Chris. I guess I can recite my own Pilgrim story, since it happened about 60 years ago, on an AA flight (DC-3!) leaving Chicago. The statute of limitations must be in force.

    I was about 2-3, had been awake most of the night from the flight from the west coast (can’t remember what that was – DC-4?) – and we had just left Chicago and the F/A was serving breakfast.

    That bacon was good – so good that I had **a lot ** of it.

    With the result a few minutes later I was puking all over.

    Looking back on that I have to pity all of the passengers in that small bouncing tube – what a thing to greet you on an early morning.

    It was during the Pilgrim Season – can’t remember if we were going to a family Thanksgiving.

  11. Lego Spaceman Says:

    As a father who took 4 kids age 7 and under on a summer vacation, little things like this make a difference. Pilots that keep an eye out for someone who needs car seat cover. Attendants that give out extra cookies and juice. Or even the people waiting to use the lav who let you skip ahead when they see that a 4 year old might not make it in time.

    Thanks for posts like this one.

  12. I was once that business traveler going from A to B, but I’m now mom to four kids under eight. We fly to see my parents at least once a year and most of the time I feel like a huge inconvenience to the whole flight crew. Thanks for letting us moms know we aren’t driving you completely crazy! BTW, my dad was a year ahead of you in college and one of his friends pointed me toward your blog (I was an aero engineer before the kids) – I love hearing your perspective on things.

    • Families–young and old, kids and seniors–are what the whole business of flying home is about. That’s never a problem, or if it is, it’s one that should be willingly and graciously resolved.

      The “problem,” from a flight crew perspective, is the faux frequent flyer trying to impress us with his “status” (“I’m Premium Executive Cobalt U234 Cubic Zirconium–me first …”) without regard for the other 159 people also enroute.

      Another VMI alum? A few of us escape from there every year …

      • Yeah, I’m on a plane a lot, but that doesn’t make me any more important than anyone else. I appreciate the perks the airline gives, but everything would be better if we’d all consider our fellow passengers when we travel. We can help somebody get their bag in the bin. We can take a second to say hello, please, thank you and good bye. If I’m on the aisle, I can be gracious about letting the others in the row out. I can avoid reclining into the face of the people behind me. Etc.

  13. Hey, this is me! Well, sort of. Flying back East in less than 7 hours to see no-longer-teenager daughter who prefers NJ to the beaches of Southern California. Breaking one of your no-fly rules by leaving from Reagan on Sunday– we’ll see how THAT goes.

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