Christmas was still nearly a month away when Santa made his annual visits to U.S. Coast Guard outposts up and down the coast of Maine this year.
As befits his legend, Santa arrived by air. But for this trip, at least, no reindeer led the way. Instead, the big man in the red suit traveled in a helicopter, the loud whirring of its rotors finding noisy competition in the cheers of the children who waited for him on tenterhooks at even the most remote Coast Guard stations in Maine.
Petty Officer Third Class Stephanie Horvat of Coast Guard Station Jonesport said the scene on Sunday, Nov. 26, as the Flying Santa landed in a helicopter was one of happiness and excitement — something she won’t soon forget.
“Seeing the joy on the kids’ faces, hearing them screaming for Santa when he lands,” she said, remembering the big guy’s arrival as something akin to a world-famous rock star being greeted by adoring fans. “He gets out with a big red bag with bells attached to it. He’s literally the epitome of Santa. … To see the joy, there’s something magical about it.”
Flying Santa is a program that began in 1929, when a Maine floatplane pilot and aviation pioneer named Capt. William Wincapaw of Friendship decided he wanted to spread Christmas cheer to the isolated lighthouse keepers and their families. So he loaded up his seaplane with packages containing newspapers, magazines, coffee and candy: “small luxuries and common staples that could make living on an isolated island a little more bearable,” Brian Tague, the president of the Friends of Flying Santa, wrote in the history of the program.
“Word came back to him in the days that followed that his gifts of Christmas cheer were extremely well received,” Tague wrote. “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.”
Soon, the flights had expanded into other parts of New England, and even though Wincapaw didn’t initially consider himself a Santa he eventually began to don white whiskers and red coat to better look the part as he threw the well-wrapped Christmas bundled out of the windows of the plane. By 1933, Tague wrote, the Christmas flights took the captain to 91 lighthouses and Coast Guard stations.
Over the years, of course, things kept on changing for Flying Santa. Wincapaw and his family moved to Massachusetts and his son, Bill Wincapaw, Jr., joined him as a Flying Santa in 1934 when he was 16, becoming the youngest licensed pilot in Massachusetts. Another person, Edward Rowe Snow of Massachusetts, also helped with the growing schedule of holiday flights and by 1940 took them over temporarily when the Wincapaws were busy flying gold and mining machinery in South America. In December 1941, just a few weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor catapulted America into World War II, it seemed that the Flying Santa trips would be an early wartime casualty. But a few days before Christmas, Army and Navy officials authorized the holiday flights so as not to deprive the isolated lighthouse keepers and Coast Guardsmen. In order to make sure the Flying Santa plane wasn’t misconstrued as an enemy bomber, the words “Christmas Seal Plane” were painted on the side of the plane in large red letters.
By the 1970s, stricter Federal Aviation Authority regulations and rising insurance costs meant that it was harder to reach some locations by airplane. In 1973, Snow, undaunted, chartered a boat to make the rounds of Casco Bay lights and visited with more than 100 children that way. In 1977, he decided that Santa’s ride would be upgraded from an airplane to a helicopter, which was not as constrained by the altitude and flight rules. The helicopter made it easier for Santa to land and deliver his presents to the children in person.
Tague has been onboard the helicopters since 1991, when he was asked to come aboard to take photos of the Flying Santa in action. He liked the work of the Friends of Flying Santa, volunteer-run nonprofit group so much that he kept on participating and now serves as its president.
“It’s the recognition we give to the Coast Guard,” he said. “It’s a way of showing some appreciation for the work that they do. … It’s something that’s done for free. We don’t charge anyone. There’s nothing commercial about it. It just recognizes the military families.”
Even in our current era of instant electronic communication and Amazon delivery, there is still a role for the Flying Santa, he and Coast Guard officials said. Coast Guard stations may seem less isolated than they did in the past, but military families still come from all over the country and many Coast Guard kids grow up far away from their own grandparents and extended family members. Flying Santa helps make the holidays memorable.
“At every stop, you can see the kids bouncing up and down. They’re really thrilled about it,” Tague said. “For some of them, it’s their first time meeting Santa. Better this than going to the mall and having to pay $35 to have your picture taken with him. This is a little more special.”
Executive Petty Officer David Smith of Coast Guard Station Rockland, who moved to Maine with his family in July, said his 8-year-old daughter loved meeting Flying Santa last month.
“She was really excited,” he said. “My daughter, like many other kids, didn’t really understand what Flying Santa was until she saw the helicopter. Then came the questions. Is that really Santa? Where are the reindeer?”
Over at Coast Guard Station Southwest Harbor, Petty Officer First Class Alex Bernier tells his own three girls that the reindeer are taking a break.
“They love to see that helicopter come in,” he said of his daughters. “They’re dazzled.”
Smith said the Flying Santa program is special, and because of it his family was able to meet some other families from nearby units they hadn’t yet.
“We’ve spent Christmas in Louisiana, Oregon, Michigan and Guam,” he said. “We’ve seen Santa come in many different ways. These programs are unique. And certainly they’re great for the families that are new, like us.”
Seeing the joy of the kids makes all the work feel worthwhile for volunteers like Tague, whose fall is a whirlwind of Flying Santa-related activity. This year, Santa touched down at 32 locations from Maine to New York, visiting about 1,200 children at 90 different Coast Guard units and lighthouses. He has to make the trip well before Christmas because finding a stretch of good flying weather on weekends in December can be difficult.
“It’s kind of crazy — 2½ months of seven days a week work,” Tague said. “My living room looks like there was a major accident at the North Pole. It takes a while to clean up.”
But regardless of the state of his living room or the trickiness of the logistics involved in getting Santa to all the Coast Guard children, he loves the program.
“If someone is deployed, it’s something that makes Christmas extra special for them,” he said.
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