History: The Flying Santa

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Post written by William Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

Flying Santa, 1946
Santa drops presents from a helicopter at Boston Light in 1946. Photo courtesy of Friends of Flying Santa.

Throughout the history of  Coast Guard aviation, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft have been used to aid members of the general public or other federal agencies during emergencies and in times of need. However, the holidays have provided a unique opportunity for private citizens to return the favor.

In 1929, the first year of the Great Depression, aviation pioneer Captain William Wincapaw began the tradition of “The Flying Santa.” Also known as the “Santa of the Lighthouses,” Wincapaw oversaw flying operations for the Curtiss Flying Service at Rockland, Maine. He had a great deal of admiration for lighthouse keepers and their families, who served in isolated and inhospitable locations. On the morning of December 25, 1929, Wincapaw loaded his aircraft with a dozen packages of Christmas gifts and delivered them to a number of local lighthouses.

By 1933, the Flying Santa program was so well received that Wincapaw expanded it to include ninety-one lighthouses throughout Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Wincapaw began to dress as Santa and he enlisted his son, Bill, Jr., to help pilot some of the flights.

In the late 1930s, the program continued to expand requiring the services of a third Santa, famed New England maritime historian Edward Rowe Snow. Despite sporadic deliveries during World War II, the program expanded to 115 lighthouses requiring corporate sponsorship from locally-based Wiggins Airways. And, in 1946, the Flying Santa Program also began to embrace the latest technology using a helicopter to assist in lighthouse deliveries.

Edward Rowe Snow
Edward Rowe Snow in 1939 during a Flying Santa flight. Photo courtesy of Friends of Flying Santa.

In 1947, founder Capt. Wincapaw suffered a heart attack during a summer flight out of Rockland. A memorial service was held in Rockland attended by numerous lighthouse keepers, their families, and representatives of the Coast Guard, Army and Navy. Edward Rowe Snow took over the Flying Santa Program after Wincapaw’s passing and, with the support of his family and some dedicated pilots, he expanded it to include nearly 180 lighthouses. In certain years, the program even served lighthouses on the West Coast and Sable Island off of Nova Scotia.

Snow continued the tradition until 1981, when health issues prevented him from participating in any further Flying Santa missions. The mantle of the Flying Santa was passed to another pilot, despite the automation of lighthouses in 1987. After over eighty years since its founding by Capt. Wincapaw, the tradition has continued with the support of the non-profit organization Friends of Flying Santa. And since 1996, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Tom Guthlien has served as the Flying Santa, delivering gifts to Coast Guard shore stations from New York to Maine.

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