Santa's flights over Billings a family affair

2003-12-23T23:00:00Z Santa's flights over Billings a family affairBECKY SHAY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
December 23, 2003 11:00 pm  • 

Last night, as children and adults around Billings spotted Santa Claus high in the sky, they also saw some of the Blain family's love of flying.

The Santa's flight over this area evolved from the days that Gerhart and Aldonna Blain drove with their children and pointed out beacons on the hills, "There's Santa Claus," Blain would tell the children.

It was probably at least 20 years ago when it dawned on Blain that "hell, I could make a Santa Claus." With help from many people who volunteered time and donated equipment and talent, Billings' own flying Santa was created.

Blain describes it this way: Imagine a 35-foot-long fence that is 10-feet high and outlined with about 800 or 1,000 lights; hang a generator on it and fly it around the sky. The frame is attached to a helicopter, and Santa Claus makes his appearance.

Santa Claus makes similar flights in the Flathead Valley, Spokane, Wash., and California, Blain said.

"They're all copies of this," he said.

Some member of the Blain family have been flying over this area, in different planes or helicopters, for more than half a century. Gerhart Blain learned to fly as kid of about 15 when he took to the skies with a Billings man who had a glider. Blain's instructor was Jack Waddell, who helped develop and test piloted the Boeing 747.

Blain was a crop duster for more than 40 years, and owned a helicopter business. At 71, he still loves to fly.

The family estimates that Blain has influenced dozens of young pilots and - the Blain children included - many of them have gone onto the successful careers with airlines.

"They all crop dusted when they were going up," he said of his kids.

Being around flying starts at an early age in the Blain family.

"They played with airplanes like other kids played with tricycles," Blain said.

The third generation of Blain pilots is 17-year-old A.J. and his siblings and cousins are sure to take up the family passion for flight. It's hard to avoid the dedication to aviation when part of the driveway to grandpa and grandma's house doubles as a runway.

Blain is clearly proud as he watches his family walk across the airfield on their land south of the Yellowstone River.

"This is quite a crowd isn't it?" he said.

The patriarch sees more than a brood of 20 Blains that includes his adult children and their kids - he sees pilots.

"Probably 90 percent, maybe 100 percent, of them will fly," he said, his voice filled with certainty.

Although his children have impressive careers, either with airlines or their own helicopter business, but it is their generosity that most pleases Blain.

"You'd think you'd be most proud of 'em flying," Blain said. "But I'm most proud of 'em because they'll help anybody."

That includes encouraging young pilots. Blain loves to tell stories about his kids' good works, including the way one son's baby sitter has become a multiengine-rated pilot "with all the ratings."

"It didn't hurt us," Blain said of working with youths. "They was just kids that needed a hand and we gave a lot of them a hand."

"They're all family," he continued. "You help a kid out from scratch and he's family."

One young pilot described Blain as a straight-shooter, a cowboy who tells it like it is.

The Blain boys described their father as a man who thought "way out of the box."

His son Al said society may define rules, but they are for everybody but Blain. For example, the Blain children soloed earlier than the standard age of 16.

"But he had more stringent rules for skills and capabilities," Al Blain said. "He was brutal in the cockpit. If you could handle an engine failure with him screaming and yelling at you, if you could handle that immense pressure, than he figured the real thing would be no big deal."

Although he has influenced many area pilots, his own children included, Blain remains humble and won't take credit for their successes.

"My influence around here has dwindled to about 98 percent," he said with a dry wit that seems to permeate the family.

Blain sincerely credited his children with their many aviation achievements and said they have advanced well beyond him. As some of the boys did a pre-flight on the Santa Claus, Blain watched his grandchildren run around the airfield.

"It's a way of life that kind of fades, (being) this close to town and having room for kids to run," he said. "It's been a good life. It's been a wonderful life."

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