OWLS HEAD, Maine — Rotor wash isn’t normally something that’s associated with a visit from Santa, and neither is keeping secrets.
After landing at Owls Head Light State Park on Saturday in a swirl of dirt and snow kicked up by the blur of a helicopter rotor, the jolly one had one request:
“You can’t tell the reindeer about the helicopter,” he said to a group of Coast Guard families, which included a couple of dozen awe-struck children. “Especially Rudolph. He doesn’t like the red flashing lights.”
From a bag, he produced a gift for each child, cementing in their memories the time Santa arrived in something other than a sleigh. Saturday’s touchdown marked the 81st year that the “Flying Santa” has taken flights to Coast Guard stations and lighthouses throughout the Northeastern United States. According to Friends of Flying Santa, the group that oversees the program, which includes 33 stops between Jonesport and Jones Beach, N.Y., and 50 Coast Guard units.
Many of the Coast Guard families are a long way from home. Robert Baumgardner, who is based in Rockland, hails from Pennsylvania. His son Nathaniel received a toy helicopter.
“What these guys put together for us every year is great,” Baumgardner said. “Their devotion to the Coast Guard and our families is unparalleled.”
The annual tradition began in 1929 with William Wincapaw, a float plane pilot based in Rockland. During deliveries to some of the most isolated spots in New England, Wincapaw navigated by way of lighthouse beacons with the knowledge that if something went wrong, the Coast Guard would be his lifeline.
Wincapaw began his aerial Santa flights as a gesture of appreciation, delivering packages of books, magazines, candy and toys. In the early days, deliveries were dropped from an overhead plane. Thanks to the use of a helicopter like the one used Saturday — the use of which was donated by Granite State Aviation — the Flying Santa can now deliver gifts in person.
Over the years, Wincapaw and his son, Bill Jr., expanded the flights to New England and beyond.
The man behind the white beard and red coat Saturday, Chief Warrant Officer Tom Guthlien, has been Flying Santa since 1996. Guthlien is the Coast Guard’s “Ancient Keeper,” which means he’s the longest-serving officer at any of the Coast Guard’s boat stations.
Asked why he does it, Guthlien had a simple answer. “This is for the kids,” he said before turning back to the crowd with a boisterous “Ho, ho, ho.”
Brian Tague of Stoneham, Mass., was honored Saturday in Portsmouth, N.H., with the Coast Guard certificate of appreciation because he has participated in every Flying Santa flight for the past 20 years. Capt. James McPherson, the Coast Guard’s commander in northern New England, said Tague’s support has made the pro-gram the only of its kind in the country.
Greeting Santa in Owls Head was Brierley Ostrander, who is based in Belfast but hails from Juneau, Alaska. Being so far from home, she said, she and her son Malcolm appreciate anything that brightens the holiday season.
“We didn’t tell him about this, so it was a big surprise,” she said. “He’s so excited.”
Even though most of the other families had left, 4-year-old Malcolm lagged behind, his eyes glued to the helicopter and Santa inside. He didn’t intend to miss takeoff, turning his back only when he was forced to by the rotor wash.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.