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A special holiday flight to the North Pole

More than 100 foster children and two dozen disabled adults boarded Flight Santa 16 at LAX on Saturday. Waiting at the end of the 45-minute trip: Santa.

December 06, 2009|By Ruben Vives
  • Children peer out the windows of a United Airlines jet on a 45-minute flight. The annual event, called the Fantasy Flight, is arranged by airline employees and funded through candy, book and bake sales.
Children peer out the windows of a United Airlines jet on a 45-minute flight.… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

It was a little past noon on Saturday when the United Airlines Boeing 747 lined up on a runway at LAX. On board: more than 100 foster children and two dozen disabled adults eagerly awaiting their trip on Flight Santa 16.

The Fantasy Flight, as the event is called, is a mock trip to the North Pole arranged each year by United Airlines employees.

The 16th annual event was funded through candy, book and bake sales by the airline and its partners, as well as donations.

"About 3,500 children over those years have been blessed with the love and joy of this season," said Jack Paluska, the station operation control manager at LAX.

"The end of the year is a pretty big deal for us," he said.

Children, under the custody of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, and the adults, under the supervision of the South Bay Vocational Center, cheered and applauded as Lee Taylor, operations manager for onboard services at Los Angeles International Airport, announced to the passengers: "We're off to the North Pole."

The jet sped down the runway, lifted off and flew over the Pacific, piercing a blanket of clouds that had been hiding the sun.

Singing broke out inside the plane:

Here we go to Santa Claus

Land

Here we go to Santa Claus

Land

Here we go to Santa Claus

Land,

To visit Santa Claus.

Ana Muñoz, 26, a first-time volunteer with Alliance Credit Union, which donated about $1,000 for the event, held the hand of a first-time flier.

They clasped hands across the aisle.

"I told her it's going to be OK," Muñoz said. "One of the flight attendants told her to close her eyes, so that when she opens them she'll be in the North Pole."

Further down the aisle, Beth Yates, 37, who is developmentally disabled, said she has been excited about the flight since she learned about it last week. Sitting next to her was caregiver Linda Barker, who said that when she told Yates that they were going to fly to the North Pole on Saturday, Yates only had one thing to say.

"We're going to need our mittens and beanies; it's going to be very cold over there," Barker said.

About 13 flight attendants, some dressed as Disney characters, were also on hand to serve drinks, sandwiches and fruit. The trip took 45 minutes, from L.A. to Bakersfield, over the Sierra and back over the San Joaquin Valley to LAX. Landing at the airport, the children were told to pull down the window shades.

"Why can't we look?" one child asked Lizette Bonilla, a supervisor with the children and family services agency.

"Because it's a secret location," Bonilla said.

All of the passengers on Flight Santa 16 received an official North Pole Traveler stamp.

At LAX, the passengers were greeted with a big banner that read: Welcome to the North Pole. Gate 76A in Terminal 7 had been transformed into a Christmas Wonderland. And waiting there, as expected, was the main attraction: Santa Claus.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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