I remember seeing a photo in a magazine when I was a child. It was taken in a town that had been completely devastated by a tornado. Within the photograph was, as far as the eye could see, total and utter devastation; debris and remnants of peoples lives scattered about the landscape. Near the front of the camera’s field of view, however, and the focal point of the image itself, was a single, solitary yellow flower, poking up through the sea of destruction surrounding it. It was a powerful image that showed, even in the face of complete crisis and devastation, life will renew and beautiful things can still emerge from the deepest depths of despair.

Last September I was trapped in Chicago when a disgruntled employee set fire to the Chicago area Air Traffic Control Center (ATC), closing two major airports and affecting air traffic over 7 states. I was sitting on a Southwest jet at Midway Airport at 6AM. The doors were closed and jetway pulled back, when the fire broke out and the ATC was evacuated. I would not get home for an additional 39 hours. I wrote about that experience here. It was a colossal mess that affected travel across the country and disrupted the lives of thousands for well over a week.

But last November I heard a story that tells me not everyone was stranded on that chaotic day. In fact, that particular day, September 26th, was for some a very magical day to fly. It is a story of hope, faith, and promise. It is a tale that warms the heart, and shows America at it’s very best, a compassionate society that will step up when things go bad to make certain a sick child’s dream is realized.

Two sick children, actually.

Mel Nehleber, President of transportation company Access On Time, was at the same conference in Chicago that I had been attending. I spoke to him during the Las Vegas National Conference in November, and the topic of that day came up. The Chicago hotel where we had been staying had computer screens in the lobby that displayed status of flights out of both Midway and O’Hare International airports. Mel told me that he was watching those screens that fateful Friday morning, and while every other flight on the board read as cancelled, his flight doggedly remained listed as “On Time”. He called the airline to confirm, and agents told him the flight was still showing as scheduled and on time. Even though both airports were essentially closed, Mel and his wife decided to head to O’Hare to see what was happening with their flight.

After they got through security and arrived at the gate, they found airline staff working the service counter, and their flight poised for an on time departure. They were surprised to see the gate area heavily decorated with balloons, stars and other party decorations. There was a festive atmosphere at the gate; a definite departure from the chaos seemingly enveloping the airport elsewhere.

It turns out Mel and his wife were scheduled on a mAAgic Flight. mAAgic Flights are the work of the Something mAAgic Foundation, a non-profit organization comprised of volunteers who are current and former American Airlines employees. They “support the missions of Give Kids The World Village® and other children’s organizations to create magical memories for children with chronic or life-threatening medical conditions.” According to their website, “Each year mAAgic flight offers children with life-threatening medical conditions an unforgettable, cost-free vacation experience in Orlando, FL. The children and their families fly from around the globe to visit Central Florida’s attractions and stay at Give Kids The World Village®.” On September 26, 2014, the Something mAAgic Foundation was scheduled to fly dozens of children, their families, and friends to Orlando; from 21 US and 7 international cities. It was a major annual event for the organization. 

Now the actions of some whacky bastard threatened to derail the entire event for the two kids scheduled out of Chicago.

That wasn’t going to happen. The flight left Chicago on time, as scheduled. It was probably one of the very few, if not the only commercial flight to depart the Windy City that day. When it arrived in Orlando, the plane was greeted by a throng of supporters, as well as the children’s favorite animated characters from the local Orlando theme parks. The ill children that comprised that days mAAgic Flight were going to get their promised week’s vacation; whacky bastard be damned.

Mel spoke to the pilot after they arrived, and learned some of the intricacies that had been involved in making this happen. First, American Airlines apparently takes extraordinary steps to insure nothing goes wrong with any of these flights. Even though their flight was scheduled for the early afternoon, the plane had been parked, prepped and ready to go at that reserved gate since the very early hours of the morning. For the first one third of their flight out of Chicago they were restricted to flying at 10,000 feet, since normal regional ATC services were offline. This was in order so that local ground based radars could safely track and monitor their progress. It was, what had to be, a massive effort of multiple entities to pull this off during an unprecedented outage. The airline, airport authority, FAA, along with a multitude of volunteers and local tracking stations no doubt had to make herculean adjustments to accommodate that flight, and accommodate it they did.

All so two very ill children would not be left wanting for the promised trip of a lifetime.

As for Mel Nehleber, he chooses to tell the honest tale, when he could, in my opinion, hide the truth and make it the marketing coup of a lifetime. I mean, when you are the president of a transportation company, and it’s name is “Access On Time”, and you are the only guy in the industry to make it home on time in the middle of that ginormous mess, then I would think you have a real opportunity to leverage that to your advantage. When people ask him how on earth he managed to get home in the midst of all that, he could wryly smile, hand them a card and say, “It's just what I do”.

But what do I know?

I’ve held on to this story for some time, hoping to reach someone – anyone at the Something mAAgic Foundation who could provide some background to this event. Unfortunately, despite multiple attempts, I could get no response from my queries. There is no phone number available for the group, and none of my emails were returned. I even tried tracking down Board members via LinkedIn, and the only one that responded has been away on medical leave and was not involved this year.

I don’t know what they had to do to get that damn plane in the air, but they clearly do not want to talk about it.

The point, of course, is that they did. The plane with its precious cargo (and Mel) flew when others didn’t. It was a day of chaos and confusion, and sick children were not to be disappointed, no matter what. That mAAgic flight was the small yellow flower stubbornly poking through the debris of a million shattered travel plans; a symbol that, no matter how bad the situation may be, there can be hope and decency in an often topsy turvy world.

It truly was, for a very precious few, a magical day to fly. Is this a great country, or what?

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