Since this is Christmas week, I thought I'd write about something apropos to the season: "The Santa of the Lighthouses".
The other day I was talking to a friend and mentioned "The Flying Santa". My friend looked at me funny and said, "Who?"
Early Flying Santa Delivering Christmas Gifts.
When I was growing up in Massachusetts, I remember hearing about "The Flying Santa" on the radio. I even got a glimpse of him on Boston television. The story was that he put on his Santa suit around Christmas, and flew to all the remote lighthouses and Coast Guard stations along the New England coast to drop off presents and such for the lighthouse keepers and their families. He started doing this in 1929, and to this day Santa still takes his annual ride.
Obviously, this Flying Santa role was filled by many people. The one I remember was Edward Rowe Snow. He was born in Winthrop MA in 1902. He was the descendant of sea captains. After graduating from Harvard, he became a history teacher at Winthrop High School. Snow developed an interest in shipwrecks, pirates and treasures. One of Snow's students was Bill Wincapaw, Jr. - the son of Bill Wincapaw, who was the first Flying Santa. Wincapaw was looking for someone to help him with this project, and Snow seemed to fit the bill.
Captain Bill Wincapaw was an amphibious plane pilot from Maine. He was one of the early aviation pioneers who flew around Penobscot Bay, which was dotted with many islands. Wincapaw was in charge of the Curtis Flying Service. On occasion, he would have to fly in adverse weather conditions to pick up people in need of immediate medical care. The pilot was very appreciative of the lighthouse keepers, who's beacons guided him at night and in inclement weather. These guardians even kept track of him, calling ahead to let airfield personnel know his location and that he had been spotted. Wincapaw started landing near the lighthouses so he could meet the keepers and their families. He made many friends, and had great respect for these brave men and women. The Captain decided he wanted to do something special for them. On December 25, 1929, Captain Wincapaw loaded his plane with newspapers, magazines, candy and other dry goods, and dropped them out of the plane to lighthouses in his area. He hoped the modest gifts would give the caretakers some comfort on cold winter nights.
Several days later, he received word that the lighthouse keepers were touched by his gesture. At this time, he decided he wanted to expand his flights along the New England coast. He would drop packages at all lighthouses and Coast Guard stations. The flights continued and expanded into Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Wincapaw's son got his pilot's license at age 16 (he was the youngest licensed pilot at this time) and joined in delivering packages. Even his mother flew on many occasions! The name "Santa" was bestowed on Wincapaw by several of the recipients. He started dressing for the part with a red suit and white beard! As the cost started to climb, Wincapaw was able to get corporate support for this venture. The W.S Quimby Company (which sold LaTouraine coffee) was one such sponsor.
In 1933, the family moved to Winthrop MA. The Captain was delivering to 91 locations by now. He enlisted the help of Edward Rowe Snow, his son's teacher at Winthrop High School. As the number of stops grew, Captain Wincapaw flew a northern route, while his son and Snow covered the southern route. By 1938, the Captain found himself in South America, flying gold and mining machinery in and out of the jungles. This meant Bill Jr. and Snow had to make the drops by themselves - which they did without a hitch. The gauntlet had been passed. Wincapaw found himself in South America for the next few years. then World War II broke out, and flights were suspended. His son ended up flying bombers to England, then patrolling for enemy submarines in the Atlantic.
Edward Rowe Snow and Friend Loading Plane
At the end of the war, Snow started up the flights again. After a doll was ruined during a drop, Snow decided to deliver the Christmas presents by helicopter. This was very expensive, and Snow did not resort to a helicopter again for many years. Bill Jr. and his father returned from war duty, and used a DC3 - a commercial version of a military cargo plane, later know as a "Gooney Bird". This actually simplified the drops since the plane had been designed for cargo delivery. By this time, the route had grown to 115 stops from Cohasset MA to the Canadian border. This required two days of flying. Unfortunately, in July 1947, Captain Wincapaw suffered a heart attack and died in a plane crash. Snow was left to continue the tradition. In 1947 he expanded the route to 176 lighthouses and Coast Guard stations from Canada to Florida.
It should be noted here that Mr. Snow did not have a pilot's license! he had always depended on others (e.g Bill Jr.). So he eventually had to hire a pilot to fly him around to the lighthouses. He and his wife could have used the money to improve their standard of living, but they decided to sacrifice and use their money to finance the Flying Santa program. The dropped packages now contained coffee, tea, Gillette razor blades, rubber balloons, chewing gum, dolls and pen and pencil sets. Since Snow was also the author of about 90 books on maritime lore, he'd drop copies to the people below. He'd include a self addressed return envelope so readers could provide feedback on his book! Snow's daughter, Dolly, started to join them at the age of 1 - year. Mrs. Snow also accompanied Mr. Snow, so the flights became a family affair.
As you can imagine, some packages missed their targets. Some caused damage to windshields and the like. Mr. Snow carried insurance and always paid for repairs. One time he lost his beard. Several days later, he received it in the mail with a letter asking where the package was!
In 1953, Snow expanded the program to the West Coast. The Coast Guard provided him with a plane. Snow dropped bundles on the East Coast in the morning, and along the California and Oregon coast at the end of the day.
In 1972, Snow had to start curtailing the flights due to higher insurance rates and tighter air restrictions. Some of the deliveries had to be made by car and boat. Over time, restrictions tightened and insurance soared. Then Snow came up with a solution. Although slightly more expensive, he could once again deliver bundles by helicopter. In 1978, he rented a Bell jet helicopter and delivered bundles along the coast from Massachusetts to Maine.
Mr. Snow suffered a stroke in 1981. It was apparent he wouldn't be able to make the flight that Christmas. The director of the Hull Lifesaving Museum, Judeth Van Hamm, heard about this situation and offered the staff's services. The Snow's gladly accepted her offer of help. Van Hamm was able to secure 3 helicopters - one from a corporation, one from a television station and one from an animal rights group - to help deliver the gifts. A pilot named Ed McCabe became the new Flying Santa. Mr. Snow died on April 12, 1982, after serving as the Flying Santa for 42 years.
Fortunately, people have stepped forward over the years to help continue the tradition. A Friends of the Flying Santa, Inc. group was established in 1997. They have a website at http://www.flyingsanta.com/HistoryOrigins.html. You might want to read more about the history of this wonderful program.
The Flying Santa became part of my Christmas tradition at a younger age. There was something romantic and adventurous, about this story. Every Christmas I'd hear about Mr. Snow and his flights to remote lighthouses. Unfortunately, many of the lighthouses have been replaced by unmanned, automated beacons. There are still Coast Guard stations along the coast. The number of drops have been reduced drastically, and flight times have shortened; but there is still a need for a Flying Santa. Personally, I hope people continue this tradition in the future. It reminds me of a simpler time, and people's love and concern for one another.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas, a Happy Chanukah, a Joyous Kwanzaa, and a Glorious Ramadan!
Acknowledgement: Thanks to The Friends of the Flying Santa for permission to use these photos.
SOURCE: Friends of the Flying Santa. Retreived on December 22, 2011 from: