Flying Santa tradition began in 1929

Published 12:44 am Saturday, December 12, 2015

Here it is almost mid-way into December. Many of us are stirring around, attending festive events, making our household plans for Christmas, and most importantly preparing our hearts as we follow the journey to Bethlehem for the celebration of our Lord Jesus Christ’s birthday.

In a bundle of Christmas mail that arrived at our mailbox some years ago a catalog from Maine surfaced. Splashed across the cover were the words, “The Most Complete Selection of Lighthouse Memorabilia Ever Assembled.” It caught my attention because lighthouses fascinate me. The catalog triggered memories of a slide presentation made by a couple in our church featuring their visits to lighthouses during their travels over the United States. When I flipped a page, a delightful figurine labeled “Flying Santa 1929” caught my eye. It was a man wearing an old-fashioned aviator’s cap with a bag flung over his shoulders. My curiosity was aroused. There had to be a story about this flying Santa. I began a search.

In 1929, Bill Wincapaw, a floatplane pilot, had made deliveries around the Penobscot Bay area when he encountered a major storm. To complicate the problem, his fuel was low. Then, out of the gloom below, a blinking light appeared from the Dyce Head Lighthouse in Castine, Maine. From it, he set a course for home using beacons of six other lighthouses.

This happened the week before Christmas. A few days later, the grateful Wincapaw returned and dropped brightly wrapped gifts on the lawns of the lighthouses. The pilot chose this way of expressing his appreciation to the lighthouse folks for the guidance that saved his life that stormy night.

His thoughtful action started a tradition. When he discontinued his annual flights to fly gold out of Bolivia in 1936, author and historian Edward R. Snow picked up where he left off. Snow and his wife visited lighthouse keepers on the Eastern Seaboard for 43 years, only stopping in 1980 because of his illness. The Hull Lifesaving Museum in Massachusetts took up the tradition for 16 years.

A non-profit organization called The Friends of the Flying Santa carry on. Flying Santa arrives in a helicopter, delivers gifts and visits the keepers and their families. One observer wrote of the anticipation when some members of a lighthouse family stood on the porch searching the sky, straining their ears for the sound of the helicopter.

In 2006, Friends of the Flying Santa dedicated a memorial plaque in honor of Capt. William Wincapaw in the exhibit hall of the new Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, ME.

There are still Santa stops at some lighthouse sites visited by pilot Wincapaw those many years ago. The Friends of the Flying Santa have dedicated themselves to maintaining the helicopter visits to lighthouses with the same spirit and enthusiasm of their predecessors. They raise the funds to finance the flights.

Flying Santa is a wonderful expression of appreciation for those whose lights help rescue and save those who lose their way.


Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper business. Her column appears on Saturdays.