83 years and counting
The volunteer-run Flying Santa program is embedded in US maritime and aviation history. Here are some highlights from its history:
1929: Captain Bill Wincapaw, a Maine floatplane pilot and aviation pioneer, decides to show his appreciation to 12 Rockand, Maine, area lighthouse keepers and their families by dropping small wrapped gifts — newspapers, candy, magazines, coffee — at his own expense; Flying Santa becomes an annual tradition, expanding into Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
1933: The Wincapaws move to Winthrop, Mass.; and Flying Santa visits 91 New England lighthouses and Coast Guard stations; Bill Wincapaw Jr. introduces his father to Edward Rowe Snow, his Winthrop High history teacher.
1934: Bill Jr., 16, becomes the youngest pilot in Massachusetts, and flies part of the Flying Santa routes with his father.
1936: Snow starts helping out with the Flying Santa program.
1941: Advent of World War II threatens to end the Flying Santa program, but days before Christmas, the military allows the Santa flights to 35 locations, with the plane marked “CHRISTMAS SEAL PLANE” in 2-foot-high red letters to avoid being mistaken for an enemy aircraft.
1947: Captain Wincapaw dies; Snow expands flights to 176 lighthouses and Coast Guard stations from Canada to Florida; gift packages, each weighing 20-25 pounds, tossed from the plane include razor blades, coffee, gum, dolls, pen and pencil sets, and a copy of Snow’s latest book.
1978: FAA regulations, plus high insurance costs, threaten to end the program; Snow shifts to Bell Jet Ranger helicopters, hovering low to toss gifts to keepers below.
1982: Snow dies at age 79; Hull Lifesaving Museum opens to preserve the region’s maritime history; museum member Ed McCabe and others suit up to continue the Christmas tradition.
1987: The automation of Maine lighthouses cancels many northern flights; with the era of lighthouse keepers slowly ending, the future of the Flying Santa is endangered.
Late 1980s: Agreement is reached that the Coast Guard’s mission still warrants the program; WCVB-TV provides helicopter service for Boston area flights; new gift sponsors are added, including Cape Cod Potato Chip Co., Bell’s Seasoning, Bickford’s restaurants; letters from students at the Lillian Jacobs School in Hull, addressed to families at the remaining lighthouses, are added to the gift packages.
1991: Brian Tague, a professional photographer from Stoneham, joins the flights; he becomes the program’s director and board president.
1997: Friends of Flying Santa Inc. is formed by volunteers to continue the program; fund-raising events for the nonprofit include lighthouse tours, boat cruises and overnight stays.
2006: Tribute is made to Captain Wincapaw at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, Maine.
2012: Flying Santa delivers gifts to 700 children in Coast Guard families, making 33 stops from Maine to New York.