MAYNARD — Santa soars into town along the Assabet River and crests the sprawling red brick massif of the former textile mill. He buzzes over marching bands and floats assembled in the Clock Tower Place parking lot, and swoops down toward balloon-festooned storefronts on Main Street.
“Ho, ho, ho,” chortles the elf, waving a burly, red-and-white-clad arm at the tiny faces gawking up at him from the street. His ride banks sharply left, leaving him looking down over several hundred feet of open airspace, held on board by a seat belt. A less-experienced flier might panic, but Kris Kringle never cringes. He waves on, chuckling in time with the beating of the rotors. “Ho, ho, ho.”
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. You may not have heard of Robinson R44, the red-nosed helicopter.
But they have in Maynard, where the big guy has been flying by helicopter to the Maynard Christmas Parade for two decades. A generation of children has grown up with visions of rotor blades whirling in their heads. Revelers scream in anticipation as the Christmas berry-red copter circles over town before descending slowly at Clock Tower Place.
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof might make for nice poetry, but nothing says “big-time Yuletide entrance” like the steady purr of a Lycoming O-540 engine.
“Kids know that Santa is supposed to ride in a sleigh,” says Ellie Callahan, Santa’s pilot for the flight and the owner of the Robinson R44. “They seem to adapt pretty easily to the idea of a helicopter because it is so cool.”
Santa — who asks to be referred to as “Santa,” in case Virginia is reading this — says children sometimes ask him about his reindeer. He tells them that the team is off in the woods resting up after the long flight from the North Pole.
“I prefer my sleigh and reindeers,” he says, punctuating his words with a generous supply of ho-ho-hos. “But Ellie has been doing it so long, she and her helicopter are my sleigh.”
Callahan operates Harvard Helicopters out of Minute Man Air Field in Stow, where she gives sightseeing tours and flying lessons most of the year. But at Christmastime she offers her whirlygig for holiday gigs; this year, in addition to Maynard, she is delivering St. Nick to Oak Hill Country Club in Fitchburg.
She is not Santa’s only helicopter helper. John Ryan, of Ryan Rotors Inc., in Plymouth, flies the jolly gift-giver to events across the South Shore. Sometimes, his daughter, Madeline, 14 will dress up as Jingles the Elf and help Santa in and out of his copter. Ryan recalls her asking as a young girl why Santa flew in a machine and not a sleigh.
“My response has always been ‘Well this time of year Santa needs to be at these different malls and parties. It’s the best way for him to get around,’” Ryan says.
When she flies, Callahan removes the door from the passenger seat side so that people can see Santa wave. It looks a lot scarier than it feels. Callahan is a careful flier, working the cyclic, the collective, and the antitorque pedals in perfect harmony to keep the ride as level and smooth as possible. And Santa’s millions of hours on the sleigh have clearly inured him to the thrills of riding shotgun in a helicopter.
“He knows what to do,” Callahan observes at Minute Man Air Field before taking off for the Maynard run. “And anybody who volunteers as a Santa has got to be a jolly soul to begin with.”
It is a foggy morning, and there is concern she might have to cancel the flight.
“We could use Rudolph,” says the pilot, eying the murky sky.
But the sky eventually clears and Callahan revs the engine.
“Minute Man Traffic Helicopter Two Echo Charlie departing the pumps to the south with turnout to the east,” she says into her radio.
Santa waves at a small crowd of parents and children who have assembled to watch him take off. The helicopter rises off the runway. Callahan cruises above the misty woodland and low, rolling hills and within minutes enters the skies over Maynard center.
She steers clear of the steeple of the Union Congregational Church. Later, she points out a flock of herring gulls tooling along Mill Pond. Santa barely reacts to all this and keeps on waving.
On the ground, Sally Bubier hops and laughs and waves back. She is dressed as a large Christmas present wrapped in green. She is 56, and has been watching this parade for some 25 years. Her favorite part is when Santa circles over the town.
“It’s always exciting every year,” Bubier says. “I cry every time and I jump up and down. It never gets old.”
As Callahan sets the copter down, children from a youth hockey team dance in anticipation. A boy wearing brown reindeer antlers shouts out “wow” and starts to walk toward the aircraft. Other parents hold back their children, lest they get too close.
Once St. Nick is on the ground, Callahan takes off. A girl in a pink and white dress runs up to embrace Santa’s legs. The merry old elf hands out candy canes and climbs atop his float, a sleigh led by a team of giant stuffed reindeer, mounted on a trailer and pulled by a pickup truck.