"It's a beautiful fall day, don't you think, dear?" Martha said as she entered the house. She had been very busy cleaning for the upcoming Christmas season. Soon all she would be able to get done would be supervising Christmas lists and the wrapping of gifts.
Santa looked busy too, sitting at his desk frowning at some paperwork that was scattered before him.
"I've just been thinking about something, Martha. Our trusty sleigh and team are getting up in years. I received a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration concerning Aging Flying Sleighs. If any sleigh was ever aging it's our faithful sleigh and team."
"Didn't we just have an inspection of the sleigh by the FAA?" Martha inquired. "Everything was all right then except for a runner problem as I recall."
"Martha, that was almost six years ago. I've got to have another inspection according to the letter I've just received. According to this letter I might have to get a new rig. I'd better call the FAA and see how soon an Airworthiness Inspector can get out to us and inspect the sleigh and team."
Santa immediately called the local FAA office. Speaking to a supervisor, Santa found that he was able to get an appointment the following week for an inspection with Inspector Ebenezer Scrooge.
Santa had a lot to accomplish to prepare for the inspection. So he called Gunther, his most senior elf and Director of Maintenance, into his office. "Gunther, we have a whole laundry list of things to look at before the FAA gets here next week to inspect the sleigh."
"What do you mean, Santa, the FAA was just here."
"No, Gunther, as I explained to Mrs. Claus it has been almost six years and a lot can go on in that length of time."
Handing a to-do list to Gunther, Santa began to talk about the inspection that would take place the following week.
"The reindeer harnesses have to be made airworthy. The harness fittings will be inspected to meet conformity standards. There had been reports of suspected unapproved parts on the Swan Queens sleigh.
"The reindeer need to be fueled with the highest quality of tundra moss. A special inspection due to a recent Airworthiness Directive on ailing reindeer will cause Dasher and Vixen to be looked at closely. They were not well last year if you recall, Gunther. They will be the object of attention because I received a warning letter about them.
"We both know that the sleigh is old; it's been through a lot in the past few years. Lately the FAA requires a special inspection called the Aging Flying Sleigh Inspection Program. Inspector Ebenezer Scrooge will be our inspector. I understand from the grapevine that Inspector Scrooge can be somewhat difficult to deal with."
"Now, get busy Gunther, there's a lot of work to be done."
The week passed all too quickly to suit both Santa and Gunther. Before they knew it Inspector Scrooge was knocking at the door.
"Hello Santa, I'm Inspector Ebenezer Scrooge, here to assure that your airworthiness program meets the regulations. Is your Director of Maintenance available?"
Gunther, being the only maintenance elf Santa had, was the obvious Director of Maintenance. He had been trying for the past year to find other maintenance elves. There were no elves trained or qualified for the job. As a consequence he was doing the enormous job himself.
Walking toward the inspector, Gunther felt apprehensive and concerned about the inspection of the sleigh and team. Nervously extending his hand he said, "Hello sir, I am Gunther, Santa's Director of Maintenance."
"Hello Gunther, are you the only mechanic taking care of Santa's sleigh?"
"Yes sir. I have worked for Santa for several years and I have never seen such a shortage of flying sleigh mechanics. We have tried to hire some help but haven't been successful."
And so the inspection began.
First the reindeer were inspected, and Donner and Comet were in need of new shoes. Cupid had a cold and a broken antler that needed attention. Special attention was paid to Dasher and Vixen who were sick last year. They passed with flying colors.
Next the harnesses were looked over for unapproved parts. Fortunately none were found. Bridles and reins were inspected for wear and buckle conformity. Tassels and bells were added to the maintenance manual.
The sleigh was another thing again. A few years ago, as you recall, Santa had to get a new runner from the English Snow Queen. Santa's sleigh was so old that an Airworthiness Inspector could not find a part number on the broken runner. Either there never was one, or it had worn off.
Walking around the sleigh, Gunther had removed his cap and was scratching his head worrying about what the inspector might find. He had done his best to bring the sleigh up to the standards required for hauling cargo. The sleigh was an old style with a high back for cargo and low front where Santa sat in the pilot's seat. The sleigh had been replaced once and Gunther was sure that another replacement was due sometime in the near future.
The inspector went over every inch of the sleigh very carefully. He looked at the dash and crossbar on the front, and the running lights on the side. One of the lights had a broken cover and Gunther was instructed to get a new one. The seat was worn almost beyond repair.
"Gunther, just look at that seat. Why, if Santa fell through he might lose control of the team and that could be very dangerous. That item needs repair before Santa flies the sleigh again."
Down on his knees, the inspector looked underneath the sleigh. "The attachment points where the runners connect to the sleigh are worn and need to be secured, if not changed altogether. If the runners collapsed on landing, Santa might be hurt or someone on the ground could be injured."
Gunther was concerned that he might not be able to repair some of the parts of the sleigh that the inspector had pointed out.
"Sir, if it were up to me I would ask Santa to get a new sleigh. I have seen the wear and tear that the sleigh goes through each year. This one has seen better days," remarked Gunther.
Inspector Scrooge frowned. "This sleigh is far too old and worn out to be used carrying cargo. I would like to see Santa buy a new sleigh too. It certainly is time to do so. However, flying sleighs are hard to come by and even if you began today there might not be one available until after Christmas."
Santa came by just as the inspector was telling Gunther the bad news.
"Well, what do you think of the old sleigh, Mr. Scrooge?" said Santa as though he had not overheard the conversation.
"I am sorry to tell you that the sleigh is almost beyond repair. If you continue to use it to carry as much cargo as you do each year, there could be a serious problem especially with the landing gear." Scrooge was being painfully honest with Santa.
"Mr. Claus, I suggest that you look for a new sleigh. Either that or repair the items that I have mentioned as soon as possible."
"Oh my, what am I going to do? A new sleigh could take months to locate and then one as big as mine is could even take longer." Santa was getting worried now.
"Thank you for you time Inspector Scrooge. Santa shook the inspector's hand. I'll do all in my power to effect the repairs and get back to you."
Once the inspector was out of sight, Santa turned to Gunther and said, "Get busy on the repairs as soon as you can and have Samuel help you."
And so Gunther and Samuel began to work. They repaired the seat so that Santa wouldn't fall through. The seat wouldn't be as comfortable as it had been but at least it would be safe.
On closer inspection the left runner needed to be replaced due to a crack at the attachment point that was too far gone to be welded. Gunther called the English Snow Queens mechanic to see if they had the FAA approved left runner available. As luck would have it they did and sent it off to Santa via Elf Air Express.
Gunther replaced the old broken light cover, while Samual looked after Cupid's antler and called the vet for Cupids cold.
A few weeks later...
Santa called the FAA office.
"Inspector Scrooge, this is Santa. I think we are ready for a re-inspection. When can you be out to see us?"
"I have an opening next Thursday, will you be available?" queried Inspector Scrooge.
"I'll make the time see you." With a sigh Santa hung the phone on the receiver.
Thursday arrived and all had been done to meet the requirements of the inspection. Santa and Gunther were on pins and needles.
"Well, I see that you have made progress, Santa. The sleigh looks a lot better than it did a few weeks ago. It's difficult to keep the older sleighs in flying order. This sleigh has almost used up its time in service. I can help you out this year, but next year you really have to replace the sleigh."
"What are you going to recommend?" said Santa holding his breath.
"I will give you a waiver that will allow you to use the sleigh this Christmas. Then you will have to replace it with a new one. I won't be able to give you another waiver to fly the sleigh, at least not carrying cargo."
"I promise to look for a new sleigh starting right now," said a relieved Santa. "I would like to thank you for all the help you have given us with a waiver and all. The children of the world would have been mighty disappointed if they had no gifts on Christmas."
And so it was that Christmas gifts were delivered and Mr. Scrooge turned out to be a good guy after all, no matter what people said about him.
Patricia Mattison is the safety program manager for the Juneau Flight Standards office of the Federal Aviation Administration. Contributions to this article were also made by Hugh Devlin, an FAA airworthiness inspector.