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Bill Neelsen, Sr., of Taylor, portrays Santa Claus as he greets more than 65 kids with life-threatening illnesses after they disembark from Delta Airlines Flight 8247 at Metro Airport. The event is facilitated by Silverliners.

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Romulus — Christmas came early Friday for about 60 children with cancer and other illnesses, as a fantasy flight took them to see St. Nick at the North Pole.“Boys and girls, we’ve arrived, and once we get the reindeer off the runway, we can all go meet Santa Claus,” the pilot announced over the intercom as the plane carrying the youngsters came to a stop.

The kids, from seven Metro Detroit hospitals, arrived at the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport, received a boarding pass for the North Pole, and climbed onto a Delta Airlines plane.

The pilot told the children to close their window shades — it’s very bright at the North Pole, after all — then took off down the runway.

Kids sung Christmas carols, played games and had lunch on the taxiing plane while volunteers from the Silver Liners — a group of retired airline employees — gathered at the gate to transform it into Santa’s workshop.

After an hour of travel, the children disembarked to meet Santa and sports mascots such as the Tigers’ Paws and the Pistons’ Hooper. They also received bags full of gifts before heading to a three-hour reception at the West Inn.

Santa, aka Bill Neelsen, has been involved in the event for 16 years and said seeing the kids come off the plane is “indescribable.”

“We invited 77 children and they have to get the approval of their doctor to come,” said Neelsen. “Some of these kids don’t make it to Christmas and we just want to give them a great day.”

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