The Traveler, Father Christmas and the Constellation
In a previous post, I told you how the Traveler is an airliners fan.
How he likes them, knows them and is really their friend.
But, what made the Traveler such a friend with airliners?
Well, it is very simple.
It’s simply because he always lived with them, since he was a little boy.
His father was an executive in an airline and the Traveler remembers very well when the family was in Lomé, Togo.
Every Sunday afternoon, after the family lunch, his father would take him, his brother and his sister to the beach where they would enjoy water sports and fun.
At 4 pm, direct from the beach, their father would drive them to the airport where he would attend to the Air France DC-4 that was operating the coastal commuter route from Abidjan to Brazzaville.
They would arrive at the airport half an hour before the landing of the DC-4, the time for the father to dress on with his nice white uniform and prepare all the stuff to welcome the aircraft, his crew and his passengers.
In the meantime the three kids would be kidding and playing with the luggage handling attendants, joyfully running and shouting on the tarmac. In those days, safety regulations in airports were not as they are nowadays.
Then, they would watch the beautiful silver bird landing, taxiing and then gently parking just in front of the small airport house. And as soon as the four engines stopped, the propeller blades still, they would rush to the aircraft, helping the attendants, continuing their plays and even sometimes climbing up the stairs after the last passenger disembarked, invited by a kind flight attendant to have a look inside.
The Traveler was 4 at the time. He remembers all the details but what is the most acute in his memory is the delicious smelling of the high octane grade gasoline that was used to fuel these engines.
But the true encounter of the Traveler with the aircrafts, the true revelation of his love for the beautiful mighty gentle silver birds happened one year before.
Just before moving to Togo, the Traveler and his family were living in Dakar, Senegal.
His father was working for the same airline as in Togo, and Dakar was the major hub in West Africa for the French air transport network and the main French airlines base in Africa.
There were two French airlines operating in Dakar: Air France and UAT. Both had flights to France, but Air France had intercontinental connections from there, to South America, as UAT had more local connections and was acting as a feeder from neighboring Guinee, Mali and Mauritania for both.
Every year, there was a big Christmas Party for the kids of the members of both airlines reunited, in the afternoon just preceding Christmas and the venue was the main Air France hangar of Dakar-Yoff airport.
The Traveler could not remember the previous parties, he was too young, too little. But that very one, in his fourth year, would be an unforgettable one.
How many children and their parents were there? The Traveler can’t remember. A lot… There were so many. Impossible to count, but he had never saw that much before.
A huge Christmas tree was throwning in a corner of the hangar, wonderfully decorated, and a mountain of parcels just beside.
Father Christmas was there, of course, tall, strong, handsome, benevolent, in his fancy and bright red dress, impressive with his long and thick white beard, but he was smiling and laughing so gently.
And there was her!
In the other side of the hangar, she was there, sitting, like sleeping, but also like smiling, huge, magnificent, shining, the shadows and the lights of the hangar playing on her resplendent silver grey dress and wings, her four impressive and powerful engines silent, asleep, but ready to roar and rocket her to the sky.
She was there, the Queen, the brand new Lockheed L-1049 Super-Constellation of Air France, quietly resting in her silver, white and blue livery, patiently waiting for her next marvelous journey through the clouds and in the air.
Father Christmas started to give the parcels to the children one by one. The Traveler remembers his elder brother got a nice electric train, his sister a giant teddy bear, bigger than her, but he can’t remember what was his. His true gift was still to come, much more wonderful, much more unexpected.
When Father Christmas had finished to distribute all the gifts, he shouted “come on kids! Who wants to come and have a look at the aircraft with me? Come on, hands up!”
Amongst other kids holding up their hands and jumping from joy, the Traveler shouted “me, me!”
By chance, or for any reason that he would never know, the Traveler was just close to Father Christmas at this very moment, and Father Christmas, laughing “good guys! Come on, let’s go and have a look, kids!” took the Traveler up into his arms and started to carry him towards the Super-Constellation, followed by the other kids, shouting, running and laughing.
Why him, my God, why him? Why had he been chosen, why had he been elected? Why him?
They climbed up the stairs, entered the cabin, turned left and went into the cockpit, the Traveler still clinging at Father Christmas side, tightly hold in his powerful, warm and comforting arms.
Father Christmas sat down on the left hand side seat, the captain seat, he explained, installing comfortably the Traveler on his laps, covered by his red dress and let the other kids gather all around.
And he explained and he showed and he told and he answered all the millions of questions.
How it feels when you hold the joystick at take-off, when you fully push the throttles to get full power and full speed, when you fly at 20,000 feet in the deep blue sky, over the white clouds below, when you get all your attention to slowly push the joystick and drive her, the silver bird, to nicely align for a soft and smooth landing, when you feel lost inside the tempest or in the night but you check and rely on the monitors, the tables, the indicators, the gauges.
He explained the keys, the buttons, the dials, the monitors, the spots, the lights, for the speed, for the altitude, for the power, for the pressure, for the temperature, for the weather, everything.
He tested for them the radio that is so useful to say who you are, where you are, what you are doing, when you are coming and to get information and comfort from the friends on the ground or flying the other aeroplanes.
How they laughed when the air traffic controler at the other end replied "Bravo Charlie, I can hear you five-five... But, where are you, boss?" !...
It lasted one hour but for the Traveler it was only a handful of minutes that should have forever lasted.
He was drinking Father Christmas words, as the purest nectar, the sweetest honey he ever had and will ever have in his life. He was staring at him talking, seeing the pure blue sky flowing in his smiling blue eyes, hearing the roaring purr of the engines at cruising speed in his warm, soothing and gentle voice.
He was flying with him, he was flying high.
He was flying with Father Christmas in his aircraft and they were gone, over the oceans, over the mountains, over the continents, to distribute all the gifts in the cabin at the back, for all the children of the world.
And later on, no need to ask him the question: when he would be a grown-up, he would become an aircraft pilot, on the left hand seat of a Super-Constellation.
Which would, unfortunately, never come to happen, the Traveler being sight impaired. But this he was not yet knowing at the time.
On 29 August 1960, at 06:47 local time, an Air France Super-Constellation, registered F-BHBC, operating flight AF343 from Paris-Orly to Dakar, Robertsfield and Abidjan crashed into the sea when completing its final landing approach to Dakar-Yoff in bad weather conditions and poor visibility, killing its 55 passengers and the 8 crew members.
The captain was Lucien B. and the exact reasons for the crash were never completely clarified.
He was a very experienced captain, totalizing more than 20,000 flight hours, of which a large part had been achieved on Constellation and Super-Constellation types. He was a flight instructor. The year before he enjoyed playing the role of Father Christmas at the Christmas Party for the company kids.
That morning, the Traveler’s mother awoke him and after his breakfast, she told him: “you know my sweet angel, I have something sad to tell you”. “You remember, Father Christmas? He died this morning, his aircraft felt down into the sea”.
I don’t know why his mother told the news so awkwardly that morning, she was usually not awkward at all.
To her defense, she was not fully aware of the new love of the Traveler for Father Christmas and his lovely Super-Constellation. She did not realize.
And she was probably very much troubled and upset for she and her husband had to care for a very good friend, also member of the airline, who had lost in the crash his wife and his three children coming to join him back in Dakar after their holidays in France.
The Traveler was absolutely devastated. He cried for three days in a row, screaming in tears “Father Christmas is dead, Father Christmas is dead!” and “the Super-Constellation is dead!”
His father and his mother, his sister and his brother tried to explain him that it was not Father Christmas who was dead, but the captain, the man who played his role at last Christmas, and that, yes one Super-Constellation had crashed, but that there were plenty of others, but it could not comfort the Traveler.
After a few days he could calm down a bit but remained sad for a long time.
For him, Father Christmas died on this day and the Super-Constellation too.
He knows now why Father Christmas is never represented flying a resplendent Super-Constellation and parachuting his gifts of love on all the children of the world but rather in other apparels instead, such as riding a deer, for instance.
He knows the deer riders and the cart drivers are fake ones and the true, the only one, is dead in the Atlantic Ocean.
And he knows the aircrafts are nice and courageous people and it is why he admires and respects them and craves to be their friend, in memory of her very first friend who died for Father Christmas in August 1960.
Sometimes, I wonder and I think the Traveler is right.
A few years ago, on Christmas morning, when she was discovering her gifts, I asked my daughter “what nice gifts you’ve got my darling! Did you see Father Christmas bringing them?”
She took a few seconds, thinking. She frowned slightly and she looked at me, her honey eyes full of laughter and of seriousness altogether. She said “no, I didn’t see him. I was sleeping, you know, daddy. But I remember I heard for a short while sort of a roaring, purring. You know my daddy, like the roaring-purring of the ancient aircrafts you showed me the other day on the video. It was coming from far away, or from high in the sky, and first it was increasing and then it progressively disappeared”.
I know you are an adult.
But try to remember. On the night of Christmas, around midnight, are you sure you never heard a roaring-purring, high in the sky and that first increases and then progressively disappears?
If you did, tell the Traveler.
He will be comforted.
Hervé Sabattier - October 2016