It was a cold, clear Monday in Reykjavik. The sun had risen at about 11:30 a.m. that morning and had set at about 3:30 p.m. that afternoon. At Keflavik Airport, Air Force Airmen manned the Ground Control Approach unit (GCA), and Airmen and Icelanders manned the Control Tower.
First established by the British at the beginning of the Second World War, Keflavik Airport was a safe base for the Royal Air Force when British air fields were being targeted by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.
After the British victory in the Battle of Britain, Keflavik Airport was taken over by U.S. forces in 1941 as means of heading off a possible Nazi invasion of North America (with Nazi-occupied Norway as a jumping off point), to protect the Atlantic shipping lanes, and to provide a refueling stop between the U.S. and Europe. It was later named the Keflavik Naval Air Station and was manned by U.S. forces for 65 years.
In 1956, the GCA was used to land airplanes using radar in bad weather, and even when the weather was clear, the unit was manned by U.S. Air Force Airmen as a matter of standard practice. That cold clear night, there was only one aircraft at Keflavik Airport – a British Overseas Airways Corporation passenger airliner that had landed at Keflavik to refuel.
It was a quiet evening and the American men were feeling homesick the night before Christmas. They talked about the traditions of their families, and Santa Claus visiting their younger siblings, children, youngsters in their home towns. With their proximity to the North Pole, they joked that Santa could have been overhead at that very moment.
One of the Airmen in the GCA, a tall and lanky New Englander with a mischievous sense of humor, picked up the microphone which was on the control tower frequency.
“This is Santa Claus 1 with eight reindeer over the outer marker, requesting landing instructions.”
There was no pause as the control tower immediately responded “Santa Claus 1 with 8 reindeer, you are cleared to land runway 1-2. Winds are calm.” An appreciative chuckle was warming the GCA, and presumably the control tower, when a new voice broke in on the frequency.
“Keflavik tower, do I understand you have an aircraft on final?” It was the captain of the British passenger airliner, concerned there was going to be a plane on the runway at the same time as he was.
The control tower answered “Roger, we have Santa Claus 1 with 8 reindeer on approach at the outer marker.”
After a pause, the British captain joined in the holiday mirth, his enjoyment clear in his voice. “Oh, I see! Jolly good Noel spirit!”
“Roger, that’s correct. Have a merry Christmas,” the control tower responded. For men far from home, a shared joke and heartfelt wishes made the cold Icelandic night warmer and less lonely.