THE ORIGINS AND HISTORY
OF THE FLYING SANTA
 
Capt. William Wincapaw Flying Santa plane over Boston Light Edward Rowe Snow
1929-2013

By Brian Tague

Airplanes, helicopters, lighthouses and a Santa Claus delivering toys along with coffee, tea, potato chips and shaving products. Seems like a strange mix for a 84-year tradition to be based on. This annual New England occurrence, though always appreciated by its recipients, has not always been completely understood. There are many elements that make up the Flying Santa experience and we hope to enlighten people with the following account of its history and customs. Through personal recollections, newspaper accounts and family histories we have been able to put together a detailed report on the origins of the Flying Santa and its evolution over the past 84 years. We continue to research the accounts of years past, so this is by no means the final word on the origins and history of the "Santa of the lighthouses".

 THE ORIGINS
 
Capt. William H. Wincapaw

It all began back in 1929 with a Maine floatplane pilot by the name of William Wincapaw. Capt. Wincapaw, a native of Friendship, had been a pioneer in the early days of aviation. He was well known around the Penobscot Bay area as a skilled and adventurous pilot. He flew a variety of aircraft but was most at home in amphibious airplanes. The landscape of Penobscot Bay being made up of numerous islands, floatplanes had become a most practical means of transport. At this time, Capt. Wincapaw was overseeing operations of the Curtis Flying Service at the Rockland airfield as well as the nearby seaplane base. There were many occasions when he took to the air in less than ideal conditions to provide transport for sick or injured islanders. His actions were responsible for the saving of many lives. On many of these flights, his only means of navigation were the lighthouse beacons along the coast. His appreciation of the keepers and their dedication to keeping these lights well lit and their surrounding waters safe, grew each time he found himself making a flight in the worst of weather. When he was out and about, the keepers would keep a watchful eye out for his plane. They made it a habit to relay word back to the airfield whenever he had safely passed their position.

Plane's shadow over Curtis Island Light

On calmer days, Capt. Wincapaw would often land at a local light, tie up his aircraft and spend some time chatting with the keepers. He had a great deal of admiration for these men and their families and felt that something special should be done to show them how much their efforts were appreciated. So it began on December 25, 1929, he loaded his plane with a dozen packages containing newspapers, magazines, coffee, candy and other items. They were small luxuries and common staples that could make living on an isolated island a little more bearable. Some of these same items continue to be a part of the tradition today. He flew to lights around the Rockland area and dropped these modest gifts to the lighthouse families. Never realizing just how well his gesture of Christmas goodwill would be received, he flew home to spend the rest of the day with his family.

Capt. Bill Wincapaw and Bill, Jr.

Word came back to him in the days that followed that his gifts of Christmas cheer were extremely well received. The keepers and their families were touched to be remembered on this special holiday. A simple gesture of thanks had made the day so much more special for the residents of these isolated outposts. Wincapaw quickly realized that this Yuletide flight deserved to be repeated as well as expanded to include more of the lighthouse families and Coast Guard stations along the coast.

Capt. Wincapaw in full Flying Santa attire
 
 
Bill, Jr. and Capt. Bill Wincapaw with packages
 
 
Bill, Jr. and Capt. Bill Wincapaw loading up
 

The flights continued and were expanded into Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Wincapaw was eventually joined on the lighthouse trips by his son Bill, Jr., an aspiring pilot. The Wincapaws did not originally consider themselves Santas. This title was fondly bestowed upon them by the recipients of their goodwill. Eventually Capt. Wincapaw began to dress for the role, whiskers and all. By 1933, the Wincapaw family had relocated to Winthrop, MA. Their Christmas flights now took them to as many as 91 lighthouses and Coast Guard stations.

Capt. Wincapaw experimenting
with package parachute in 1936

The cost of the program continued to expand. Fortunately, they were able to find sponsors in the business community, including Adriel U. Bird, president of the W.S. Quimby Company of Boston. This was the parent company of La Touraine Coffee. Thus began the connection to one of the program's longest running sponsors. In 1934, Bill, Jr., at the age of 16 was the youngest licensed pilot in Massachusetts. He was well on his way to following in his father's aviation footsteps. That same year he piloted part of the lighthouse routes with his father. The following year he would fly on his own to a number of the lights.

LaTouraine plane dropping package over Boston Light
 
 
Boston Light - 1936
 
Baker's Island Light - 1936
 
Straitsmouth Light - 1936
 
Ipswich Light - 1936
 
Plum Island Lifesaving Station - 1936

It was about this time that Bill, Jr. introduced his father to Edward Rowe Snow, one of his teachers at Winthrop High School. Mr. Snow, a native of Winthrop, had always had a keen interest in the sea and ships and the history of the New England coast. He was a descendent of sea captains and would eventually become one of the most well known maritime authors and historians. Capt. Wincapaw was looking for additional help with his growing schedule of flights and knew that Snow was the right man for the job. In 1936, while the elder Wincapaw flew the northern route, Bill, Jr. and Mr. Snow flew to 25 stops in southern New England.

Capt. Wincapaw and young pilot Bill Wincapaw, Jr.

1938 found Capt. Wincapaw based in Bolivia, flying gold and mining machinery over the jungles and mountains of South America. Unable to make it back to New England for the Christmas trips, he called upon his son to make the flights with the assistance of Mr. Snow. The Wincapaws had "shown him the ropes" and Mr. Snow was now in it for the long haul. The flights went off without a hitch

Flying Santa's plane over Graves Light - 1938
 
Flying Santa's plane over Boston Light - 1937

In 1939, Capt. Wincapaw's employers made special arrangements to fly him back to the United States for his Santa duties. There were three trips that year. Bad weather on Christmas Day had forced the postponement of the last trip to New Year's Day 1940. By that time it was necessary for the elder Wincapaw to return to South America. So once again it was up to his son and Mr. Snow to ensure that the lighthouse families and Coast Guard crews would be paid a visit by the aerial Santas.

 
Loading up the gift bundles at Boston Airport

In 1940, Capt. Wincapaw's duties again prevented his return to New England for the Christmas holiday. His son was now also involved in the South American cargo flights and he to would be unable to return. Beginning to feel quite comfortable in the role of substitute Santa, Mr. Snow stepped in to continue what had become a beloved New England tradition. On one of the flights that year, Mr. Snow was accompanied by his wife Anna-Myrle. In the years to come she would be on board with Santa Snow for the majority of his Christmas flights. This was also the first year that Wiggins Airways became involved. They provided the charter and their pilot Charles Cowan. Over the next 60 years, Wiggins would be the provider of a number of "sleighs", from prop planes to helicopters.

Anna-Myrle and Edward Rowe Snow loading plane 1940

With the advent of World War II, the holiday flights to the lighthouses were curtailed. October of 1941 found Bill, Jr. on his way to Pensacola, Florida to become a flight instructor for the Navy. He had spent the summer ferrying bombers from Canada to war ravaged England. His father had planned to return from Bolivia to make the trips that December but cancelled due to concerns over causing unnecessary air raid alarms and the possibility of becoming a target for the coastal anti-aircraft batteries. However, just a few days before Christmas, Army and Navy officials authorized the Santa flights so that the isolated keepers and Coast Guardsmen would not be deprived of their holiday packages. Edward Rowe Snow and pilot Al Leckscheid, took off on Christmas morning to drop packages at over 35 locations. They were especially careful to avoid a number of high security installations. To make sure the plane was not mistaken for enemy aircraft, "CHRISTMAS SEAL PLANE" was put on the side of the plane in two foot hight red letters.

1941 flight - CHRISTMAS SEAL PLANE

In 1942, the trips were cancelled due to Ed Snow's service in North Africa as well as the Wincapaw family's wartime obligations. As the war continued so did young Bill's service in the Navy. As a lieutenant commander he continued to ferry bombers to England before becoming involved in patrols over the Atlantic searching for enemy submarines. While his son was stationed at the Quonset Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, Bill Sr. came on as chief of maintenance "so as Billy's ship would be running right".

First helicopter trip - 1946
 
 
Boston Light - 1946

With the end of the war in 1945, the lighthouse flights were back on track. Edward Rowe Snow was back to the regular schedule of flights throughout New England. During his delivery drop to the keeper's family at Cuttyhunk Island off the coast of Massachusetts, a package containing a doll for 5-year-old Seamond Ponsart was smashed on a rock. The little girl was heartbroken at the sight of the damaged doll. Hearing the news of this disappointing delivery Mr. Snow decided that a different course of action would be necessary for the next time he delivered a fragile doll to young Seamond. So in December 1946, Mr. Snow chartered a helicopter from Wiggins Airways to ensure that this time, Seamond's doll could be safely delivered to her with his own hands. On December 12, Mr. Snow set off from the Boston Airport in one of the first commercial helicopters, to make the flight to the southern New England lighthouses. Roy Beer, a pioneer in helicopter flight, was at the controls. Seamond's father was now the keeper at West Chop Light on Martha's Vineyard. Arrangements had been made for the Ponsart family to meet Santa and his helicopter when it landed at the nearby Gay Head lifesaving station. Upon landing, Mr. Snow was able to safely and securely place a doll into the welcoming arms of little Seamond.

Edward Rowe Snow and the Ponsart family

It was a memorable occasion for all involved. As can be imagined, the cost of the flight was infinitely more expensive than conventional fixed wing. But that year, Mr. Snow was well satisfied that the expense was worth it. However, this mode of transport would not be used again until the late 1970's.

Edward Rowe Snow and Seamond Ponsart

1946 also saw the return of the Wincapaws from their war duties. Rejoining Mr. Snow in the delivery of the Christmas bundles, they tackled the northern leg while Mr. Snow made his southern flight. For Bill, Sr. and his son the roles were now reversed. Flying in a Douglas DC-3, Bill, Jr. would man the controls while his father jettisoned the packages from the rear of the aircraft. Capt. Wincapaw had no trouble with this back seat arrangement. At 61 years of age and having spent a quarter of his life in the air, he welcomed the chance to begin to settle down.

Douglas DC-3 used on northern New England flight by Wincapaws.

It took two days of flying to cover the 115 lighthouses and Coast Guard stations from Cohasset, MA to the Canadian border. That year, the Wincapaws made sure the flights were completed before Christmas Day, so that for the first time in 18 years, Capt. Wincapaw's wife would have him home on the holiday.

Capt. Wincapaw and Bill, Jr. - 1946

On July 16, 1947, Capt. Wincapaw, 62, suffered a heart attack shortly after taking off from Rockland Harbor. His Cub Cruiser seaplane nose-dived into the water, and both he and his passenger, 20 year old Robert Muckenhirn were killed. On what was supposed to be a pleasant scenic flight over the Rockland area, a young war veteran and an aviation legend were lost. A memorial service was held in Rockland on July 19 and was attended by lighthouse keepers, their families, island residents and representatives of the Coast Guard, Navy and Army. At 2:00, as the service began, fog horns and lighthouse-warning bells rang out across Penobscot Bay in memory of Capt. William H. Wincapaw, the Flying Santa of the lighthouses.


 THE SNOW YEARS
 
Edward Rowe Snow

With the passing of Capt. Wincapaw, Edward Rowe Snow was left to carry on the Santa flights. He had been greatly saddened by the news of his old friend's death. "Bill had a heart as big as anyone I have ever known." Mr. Snow was quoted as saying to the Boston Post. "His thoughtfulness in beginning the lighthouse flights will never be forgotten by the lighthouse keepers and Coast Guardsmen up and down the New England coast." During his northbound flight in December of 1947, Mr. Snow dropped a memorial wreath over Rockland Harbor in honor of Capt. Wincapaw. Committed to carrying on the Wincapaw legacy, Mr. Snow expanded the program that year and visited 176 lighthouses and Coast Guard stations from Canada to Florida. The tradition remained alive.

Package received at Minot's Ledge Light

By this time, Mr. Snow had been participating in the Santa flights since 1936. During the war, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. In late 1942, he was wounded during a bombing mission over Northern Africa and found himself spending Christmas recuperating in a hospital bed. His thoughts were with the lighthouse families that would have no Flying Santa visit that year. The wounds he suffered eventually forced his discharge in early 1943.

Edward Rowe Snow and pilot Major Paul Dudley

As the next Christmas approached, and with wartime restrictions still in place, Mr. Snow made plans to visit his lighthouses by automobile and boat. At the last minute he received special permission to fly from the Army's Boston Fighter Wing and the Civilian Aeronautics Administration. This was due in part to the efforts of CAA pilot Lt. Fred Fillingham. He had heard a radio broadcast of Mr. Snow discussing one of the visits by boat that he had already completed. Lt. Fillingham believed Santa's generous efforts deserved better transportation and so made the proper arrangements. Once again, lighthouses from Maine to Cape Cod were able to enjoy a visit from their aerial St. Nick.

Over Boston Light - 1947

What would make Mr. Snow's accomplishments in keeping up the tradition even more remarkable, was the fact that he was not a pilot. It was necessary for him to hire a pilot and plane for the majority of lighthouse flights that he made over the years. He and his wife Anna- Myrle knew that they could have had a much nicer house and other luxuries with the money they spent on the Christmas flights. But, the great deal of fun and satisfaction that they received from the trips, as well as the deep appreciation from the lighthouse families, made it all worthwhile.

The Snow Family - 1954

The packages continued to be made up of products donated by New England sponsors. Everything from coffee, tea, Gillette razor blades, rubber balloons, chewing gum, dolls and pen and pencil sets. One item amongst all these that was especially anticipated each year, was a copy of Mr. Snow's latest book. He would also include with the packages a self-addressed card for the keepers to return, letting him know the success or failure of his deliveries.

The Snow Family - 1959

The Snow's daughter Dolly joined them on the flights before she even reached her first birthday and would accompany them for many years to come. Over the years the Snow family had many adventures as they winged their way up and down the seacoast, hurtling the carefully wrapped bundles to their lonely targets. Due to the inexact science of predicting the trajectory of 15-25 pounds worth of dolls, books, coffee and candy, all wrapped in a paper bundle, there was the occasional errant delivery. Car windshields were smashed, skylights shattered and fence pickets snapped. These were the exceptions since over 90 percent of the bundles were delivered on target. The Snows always took care of any damages and one of the more expensive parts of the program was the insurance policy they began to carry for just such occasions. Most of the "victims" of these unintended bombings seemed to enjoy recounting the experience to their families and friends. It made the visit of the Flying Santa all the more memorable. One memorable occasion that Mr. Snow would rather have done without, occurred at Boon Island Light when two packages connected by rope lodged themselves in the tail of the plane. An emergency landing was made at Portsmouth, New Hampshire and all aboard were thankful that a disaster had been averted. On more than one flight, Mr. Snow's Santa whiskers were lost to the wind as he leaned out the window for a package drop. A few weeks after one such flight he received a mail parcel with the following note: "Here are your whiskers, where is our package?"

Edward Rowe Snow over Boston Light

On a few trips, the Coast Guard had provided Mr. Snow with one of their own aircraft to assist him in his deliveries. In 1953, he conducted his transcontinental Santa flight. He delivered packages to lights on the East Coast in the morning, then flew out to the West Coast to end the day dropping gifts to stations in California and Oregon. On this Pacific leg, USCG Capt. Paul B. Cronk provided a Catalina PBY amphibious plane to make the rounds. 36 packages were dropped from San Pedro to Tillamook Rock.

Onboard a Coast Guard PBY

 

 
Snow at St. Pierre Island

Always eager to expand the reaches of his aerial visits, lighthouses as far off as the Great Lakes, Bermuda and the Miquelon Islands were added to his Christmas rounds. In 1954 he flew to remote Sable Island, 100 miles east of Nova Scotia. After arriving by seaplane he jumped aboard a wagon drawn by several of the island's semi-wild ponies and delivered his gifts to the 3 children and 23 adults residing on the island. It was at these remotest of places that the Flying Santa's visits were most cherished. Away from the trappings of the holiday's commercialism, these isolated families greeted their red-suited guest with an honest and open enthusiasm.

Boston Light - 1958

 

Photo by Frederick Clow
Package drop over Sankaty Head Light - Nantucket

In the early 1970's, due to tighter restrictions and the ever-increasing insurance costs, Mr. Snow began to have doubts about the future of his flights. In 1972, due to these new restrictions and the proximity of Logan Airport, it was necessary to visit Boston Light, Graves Light and the Coast Guard stations in Hull and Scituate by boat and car. Mr. Snow was determined to adapt to these new obstacles as best he could. In 1973, he chartered a boat to make his rounds of the Casco Bay lights and was able to visit with over 100 children and their families. The Snows repeated the voyage in 1974 and that time were met by over 300 children. Unfortunately, the flights that year were not as successful. The Snows were able to make the flight to Nantucket before weather conditions deteriorated. It then became necessary to make a direct flight to Portland Airport to hand off the remaining packages to Coast Guard personnel. It was the first time since the 1940s that the bulk of the Santa visits were cancelled.

Snowbound at Portland Airport - 1974

By 1977, new FAA regulations and the prohibitive insurance costs had taken their toll. That year, flights were made only to the airports at Nantucket, Block Island and Rockland, Maine. Frustrated by these impediments, Mr. Snow vowed to find a solution for the following year's trips. The answer soon became clear. The conveyance that had allowed him to safely deliver a doll to young Seamond Ponsart so many years ago, would now become his standard sleigh. Helicopters were not as constrained by the strict altitude and flight path rules that fixed-wing aircraft were faced with. Although slightly more expensive to charter, it was not necessary to take out the burdensome insurance. So in 1978, Mr. Snow took to the air in a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter and flew to lighthouses from Massachusetts to Maine. Old habits are hard to break so it is not surprising that a few of the parcels were delivered the old fashioned way. Coming in low, with only the briefest of hovers, the gift boxes were tossed to the keepers below. The majority of visits entailed a landing and short visit with the doubly excited children and their families. To have a present personally delivered by Santa was one thing, to add to that spectacle a helicopter landing on their front lawn made for an occasion that these children would always remember.

Edward Rowe Snow at Goat Island Light - 1978

By 1981, the years and mileage had caught up to Mr. Snow. He had suffered a stroke and was not expected to make any lighthouse flights that Christmas. For the first time since 1942, none of New England's lighthouse families would be visited by their aerial Santa. Word of this reached Judeth Van Hamm, director of the Hull Lifesaving Museum, who had been in the midst of planning a ceremony to recognize Mr. Snow. Concerned with Mr. Snow's health as well as the tradition that had meant so much to him, Ms. Van Hamm decided to approach Mrs. Snow to offer whatever assistance the museum could provide. Anna-Myrle was touched by her offer and gladly accepted. She was comforted in knowing that the Santa visits would continue. So with less than a month to prepare, the museum crew set out to make the necessary arrangements. The most important task was acquiring a suitable and affordable sleigh. The museum was in its infancy and their budget was still somewhat small. After a number of phone calls, the services of three different helicopters were secured for the three trips planned. Wheelabrator-Frye of Maine, a Boston television station and the International Fund for Animal Welfare of Yarmouthport, Mass. would be providing their aircraft for the flights. A small ceremony was held at Boston's Logan Airport where Anna-Myrle and her daughter, Dolly, presented Mr. Snow's Santa suit to Ed McCabe, the newly recruited Flying Santa. Over 20 lighthouses from West Quoddy, Maine to Warwick, Rhode Island were visited that year and this aerial gesture of goodwill was just as appreciated as Capt. Wincapaw's flights 52 years before. Once again the mantle of tradition was passed.

Anna-Myrle and Dolly Snow presenting Ed McCabe
with Edward's Santa suit

On April 12, 1982, Mr. Snow passed away at the age of 79. He was the author of over 90 books, as well as a teacher, historian, lecturer, radio personality, photographer, treasure hunter, WW II veteran, husband, father, grandfather and not least of all Flying Santa to generations of lighthouse families. His works and adventures live on and continue to be enjoyed by those of us who travel the paths of the New England coast. Whether exploring the islands of Casco Bay, searching the outer Cape for remnants of shipwrecks or climbing the ladder of Minot's Light, it is a sure bet that the footsteps of Edward Rowe Snow are being crossed.

Edward and Anna-Myrle Snow

 


 

 THE MUSEUM YEARS
Ed McCabe

The Hull Lifesaving Museum opened its doors in the spring of 1982. Its mission was to preserve the maritime heritage of Boston Harbor and its vicinity. Judeth Van Hamm and the other founding members of the museum believed that the Flying Santa tradition was an important part of this heritage. Through their efforts, and others that came along over the years, the program would continue on as a favored New England tradition. In the first few years, the role of Santa would be played by a number of museum members. Ed McCabe, Ben Blake and George Morgan were a few of the hardy soles to suit up for the Santa flights.

Ed was most remembered for his dark beard, reminiscent of the famous lifesaver Joshua James. The small children that greeted him at the lights often asked him why this Santa did not have a white beard. His response was simple - Santa's beard did not turn white until Christmas Eve. That seemed to be enough of an explanation for even the most inquisitive minds. On a number of the Maine trips Ed was joined by Mrs. Ona Jones, a museum volunteer, as Santa's dutiful helper. Over the years, Ona became one of the programs many diehard supporters. Whether helping to knit a fundraising quilt or wrapping some of the hundreds of individual gifts, Ona, and volunteers like her, helped ensure the success of each year's flights.

Fundraising Quilt

In 1982, George Morgan had seen an article in the local Hull paper looking for volunteers to assist the lifesaving museum with their new endeavors and decided to offer his assistance. Besides his experience and organizational skills he brought with him an important feature - his own white hair and beard. Proving to be a natural for the role, he began sharing the Santa duties with Ed McCabe. George would fly the southern route as well as parts of Maine while Ed would continue with the northern leg.

As the years went on, George's involvement in the program would continue to grow. He would eventually become the director of the museum's Flying Santa program. His wife Jean and their children would donate much of their time and talents to making each year's flights a success. Their tireless efforts were put into fundraising events, gift wrapping, securing product donations and so many of the elements necessary in preparing for the holiday flights.

A key supporter of the flights during the 1980's was pilot Russ Johnson of East Coast Helicopters. On many of the trips he would donate his time while the museum paid the fuel costs. On a number of occasions he made arrangements with his employers to wave the fuels costs as well. Mr. Johnson's good nature and generosity made the flights all the more pleasant for everyone involved, in the air and on the ground.

By 1987, the automation of many of the Maine lighthouses resulted in the discontinuation of the Flying Santa visits up north. Ed McCabe moved on to spend more time with the museum's successful rowing program while George continued the trips in southern New England. There were only 15 lighthouses visited that year. It was expected that within a few years, Boston Light would be the last manned light in the country. The future of the Flying Santa program looked as though it would only entail a ceremonious drop to that last lonely outpost.

Santa at Boston Light

The flights continued at this reduced schedule. Although the era of lighthouse keepers was coming to an end, the boat stations remained and many of the lights continued to be used for Coast Guard housing. There were also the beginnings of new policies that would transfer guardianship of some of the structures over to civilian organizations and caretakers. The need and interest in the Santa flights were still apparent. The basic elements of the Coast Guard's mission warranted the continuation of the Christmas visits. So as long as there were personnel connected to the lights, the Flying Santa would make the Yuletide visits. In the late 1980's, the museum was fortunate to have WCVB-TV 5 step in as the provider of helicopter services for the Boston area flights. This was welcome transportation and at the same time increased the program's public exposure with the evening broadcasts of the lighthouse visits.

The traditional gift boxes continued to be enjoyed by the lighthouse families. Many of the original items such as La Touraine coffee and Gillette razors were still included along with items from new sponsors. Products from the Cape Cod Potato Chip Company were especially enjoyed. The inclusion of the traditional Bell's Seasoning was an item whose aroma readily announced its presence amongst the other contents. Other items ranged from dog biscuits to toothbrushes, as well as toys from McDonalds and gift certificates from Bickfords restaurant. One delightful addition to the packages was the annual bundle of letters from the children of the Lillian Jacobs School in Hull addressed to the families at each lighthouse. These letters were much anticipated by the lighthouse residents and replies were promptly sent.

Greeting for Santa - Chatham 1991

I joined the flights for the first time as a photographer in 1991. For a number of years, I had specialized in photographing lighthouses and the New England coast. I was thrilled with the opportunity to view so many of these lighthouses from the air. I was also honored to be able to participate in this gesture of appreciation to the Coast Guard families. I had spent a great deal of time working with various Coast Guard units throughout New England and had seen firsthand their dedication and professionalism. Whether maintaining aids to navigation, patrolling inshore and offshore waters or tackling less glamorous administration responsibilities, they well deserve this recognition for their efforts. My participation in these flights has grown over the past two decades and I am sure I will never grow tired of the experience. I have seen firsthand how these Coast Guard families genuinely enjoy coming out for the annual visits. I hope that for many years to come their children will continue to grow up with fond memories of the Flying Santa and his helicopter.

Stratford Point Light

The flights to the lighthouses are a whirlwind experience. Beside the spectacular scenery that is viewed along the way, there is the unforgettable experience of seeing the celebrations, large and small, that occur at each landing. An apt description would be to compare the experience to that of crashing ten Christmas parties in a single day. By arriving with the guest of honor, a warm reception is always guaranteed. The stops are brief. Depending on the number of children, they average 15 to 20 minutes. At many of the stops, a smorgasbord of cakes, candies, cookies and hot beverages are laid out for the event. We sometimes wonder if we take off with as much weight in food as we have left behind in gifts. Dale Hardy of Wiggins Airways, who flew us for over a decade, became somewhat of a holiday dessert aficionado. A close inspection of his helicopter controls at the end of the day would most surely reveal traces of powdered sugar and cinnamon.

Pilot Dale Hardy & Dave Waldrip at Cape Cod Light

At every light, Santa calls out the name of each child in attendance and presents them with a small gift. The smiles on the children's faces are only equaled by the smiles of their parents. For some, this is their first opportunity to photograph their child with Santa. Their isolated locations can make a trip to the mall Santa a bit out of reach. The children ask Santa the usual questions - "Where are your reindeer?" - "How fast is your helicopter?". If time allows, and it usually does, Santa tells the story of the original Flying Santa, Capt. Wincapaw and his successor Edward Rowe Snow. After a brief tour of the helicopter, the families shout their holiday greetings and wave goodbye as Santa takes off for his next stop. It is a wonderful experience and helps set the mood for the Christmas season. I only wish that all those involved in making this annual event possible could have the opportunity to experience it firsthand as I have.

Santa Dave Waldrip

In 1994, Chief David Waldrip of the Coast Guard's Boston Aids to Navigation Team, filled in when an injury forced George onto the sidelines. Dave's Coast Guard responsibilities involved maintaining the operation of the coastal buoys and lighthouses from New Hampshire to Cape Cod. Notwithstanding his son Greg's crack about his father not needing any pillows to fill out the Santa suit, Dave's family was in full support of his new lighthouse duties. His personable nature and familiarity with many of the lighthouse residents lent a unique personal touch to the flights that year. Hidden behind an impermeable white beard, he had quite a few of his fellow Coasties perplexed at how this red-suited fellow knew so much about them and their stations. Dave well earned his place as the program's auxiliary Santa and would return to the role in 1995 to fly to the Boston area lights. His departure in 1996 for duty in Kodiak, Alaska was made with assurances that his spot on the Flying Santa sleigh would be open upon his return.

Santa's helicopter off Portland Head Light

1995 also marked the return of the Santa flights to New Hampshire and Maine. There were now enough families connected to these northern lights to once again warrant a full day of flights. Tom Clegg and Paul Ellis piloted an Augusta 109 to the 9 lighthouses. The lights on this trip have some of the most difficult landing situations of all the flights and it was due to the skills of these two pilots that we were able to make all our stops. This has been the case with the succession of our New Hampshire and Maine pilots over the years. Thanks to the efforts of Tom and Paul, as well as pilots Tony Liss, George Louzek, Art Godjikian, LaRay Todd, Leo Boucher and Greg Harville Flying Santa has been safely delivered to these remote locations. The generosity of this company and the good-natured spirits of its employees have ensured the success of these annual visits along the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine.

 
Pilots LaRay Todd & Art Godjikian

The Santa flights continued to expand. Many times it was thought that the schedule had reached the maximum number of lights that could be visited in a single day. Somehow it was always possible to squeeze a few more minutes out of the schedule and another stop would be added. The practice of bringing along an elf on some of the flights was initiated to assist Santa with the growing number of children at each stop.

 


 

THE FRIENDS

By 1997, the Flying Santa program had outgrown its position within the museum. A small group of volunteers banded together to form the Friends of Flying Santa, Inc., a non-profit educational entity. This was done to help ensure a long term financial future for the program. Founding board members Inga Hanks and Richard Boonisar were invaluable in helping to deal with the legal and financial concerns of the newly formed organization. Staffed entirely of volunteers, the Friends set forth with a renewed energy in continuing the expanded lighthouse visits. The funds necessary for the program's operation were raised through a variety of fundraisers. During the museum years, numerous boat cruises, bus tours and other activities were conducted for fundraising. These successes were carried over to the newly formed Friends. Always looking for new and exciting ways to raise funds, the Friends also began sponsoring a number of raffles that included helicopter tours, boat cruises and overnight stays at lighthouses. The Friends began publication of the Flying Santa News as well as a website to assist in informing the program's supporters of these fundraising events, narratives of the holiday flights and other activities. The Friends also developed the first official logo of the Flying Santa program, incorporating some of the main elements of the Santa flights. This logo was soon attached to hats, mugs, magnets and sweatshirts to assist with fundraising efforts.

Santa Tom Guthlein

In 1997, CWO Tom Guthlein stepped into the Santa role on the flights to Massachusetts' North and South Shore lighthouses. As executive petty officer at Coast Guard Station Gloucester, Tom had been residing at the Annisquam Lighthouse and was well acquainted with this holiday spectacle. His oldest son Joshua had his first visit from the Flying Santa six years earlier when Tom and his wife Vicki were stationed at Chatham. For the past few years, the family, with the addition of little Patrick, had been enjoying Flying Santa's Christmas visits to Gloucester. Tom did an excellent job and was welcomed back to repeat the role in 1998.

The Guthlein Family - 1997

1999 saw the return of CWO David Waldrip and his family from Kodiak, Alaska and the departure of the Guthleins to Virginia. Dave eagerly jumped back into the role of Flying Santa to once again assist the Friends with the Boston area flight. While away, Dave had kept in practice for the role by performing as Santa for the children of the small villages on Kodiak.

Dave Waldrip at Annisquam Harbor Light - 1999

In 2002 and 2003, the Friends were most fortunate to receive the generous donation of helicopter services from two Massachusetts pilots. Evan Wile flew the Massachusetts route and Glenn Hanson, along with his co-pilot Lou Belloisy, flew the RI-CT-NY route. This was done at absolutely no cost to the Friends. In 2004, Evan Wile began providing his services for all our southern New England stops. His piloting skills and sense of humor have been a wonderful addition to the Flying Santa experience. These gentlemen combined with all the other dedicated volunteers and sponsors are what make the continuation of the Flying Santa tradition possible.

 
Pilot Evan Wile, Sally Snowman and Santa Dave
 
Lou Belloisy, Santa Dave and Glenn Hanson

In 2003, Seamond Ponsart Roberts joined us for our Massachusetts flight. 57 years after Edward Rowe Snow visited her by helicopter, Seamond was able to experience her own flight with Flying Santa. She returned to her childhood home at West Chop Light, accompanying Santa Tom Guthlein as he brought new memories to the Coast Guard children living at the light.

Seamond Ponsart with Santa Tom at West Chop Light

To help mark the 75th anniversary of the first Flying Santa flight, William Wincapaw III, the grandson of Capt. Wincapaw, joined Santa Dave Waldrip for part of our 2004 NH/Maine flight. Bill came all the way from Florida with his wife Denise and two children, Madison and Billy. After his flight, Bill was able to meet up with his family at Owl's Head Light where together they enjoyed their first Flying Santa visit alongside the Coast Guard families of the Rockland area.

William Wincapaw III with Santa Dave at Portland Head Light

In October 2006, Friends of Flying Santa dedicated a memorial plaque in honor of Capt. William Wincapaw in the exhibit hall of the new Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, ME. In a corner of the museum overlooking the original location of Capt. Wincapaw's seaplane base, a brass plaque depicts Capt. Wincapaw's plane flying over the Owl's Head Light. A long overdue tribute to this remarkable gentleman and his role as the first Flying Santa to the lighthouses.

In 2007, Edward Rowe Snow's daughter Dolly, flew along on the Massachusetts flight assisting Flying Santa just as she had done with her father. Evan Wile's helicopter provided a much smoother "flying carpet" ride than the turbulent airplane flights she recalled on her earlier trips. It was an honor to have a member of the Snow family back in Santa's sleigh.

Brian Tague, Dolly Snow Bicknell, Santa Dave and pilot Evan Wile

2007 also marked the year that JBI Helicopters came on board to sponsor our NH/Maine flight. With Leo Boucher as our pilot, we were able to reach all our northernmost stops.

Pilot Leo Boucher and Santa Tom

 

Package drop at Hospital Point Light

In 2008, Granite Sate Aviation came onboard as the new owners of the Agusta 109e we had previously used on on our NH/Maine flight. Pilots Greg Harville and George Louzek did an outastanding job of guiding Santa around some early season snow squalls.

Pilots Greg Harville and George Louzek with Santa Tom

In August 2009, the 80th anniversary year of the first Flying Santa flight, pilot Evan Wile and Cannon Aviation helped deliver Santa to the annual Edward Rowe Snow Day on George's Island in Boston Harbor. Santa joined Dolly Snow and her family in celebrating Mr. Snow's birthday at the Edward Rowe Snow memorial pavilion.

Laura and Patrick Carbone, Santa Dave and Dolly Snow Bicknell

Friends of Flying Santa still stops at many of the same lights and stations visited by Capt. Wincapaw over 84 years ago. The aerial Santas, as well as the modes of transport, have changed over the years, but the end results remain the same. The people involved with Flying Santa are honored to be a part of this tradition of appreciation for the Coast Guard personnel and their families. In return, these deserving recipients continue to show their heartfelt gratitude for the annual visits of the "Santa of the lighthouses".

Annisquam Harbor Light
 
"See you next year Santa!"

 

 (This report on the history of the Flying Santa would not have been possible without the assistance of the following individuals: William Wincapaw III, Dolly Snow Bicknell and Jeremy D'Entremont.)

 

The information on this page is copyrighted - All Rights Reserved


WANTED: Items related to the history of FLYING SANTA

 If you have any old photographs or news clippings concerning the Flying Santa tradition and would like to share them with us, we would be glad to hear from you. Digital copying and photo restoration would be done by us to help preserve these items. We are especially interested in items from the 1930's to 1980's. Please contact:

Requests for information and photo use can also be made to the above address.

 


 

FRIENDS OF FLYING SANTA, INC.
PO BOX 80047
Stoneham, MA 02180-0001
Tel: (781) 438-4587

Email:

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