Saturday, October 14, was a very special day in the 77-year history of the Flying Santa of the Lighthouses, a fabled New England tradition that's still going strong. With well-wishers crowded into the exhibit space at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, a bronze memorial plaque was unveiled depicting the first Flying Santa, legendary pilot
Capt. William H. Wincapaw.
The plaque, designed by Friends of Flying Santa president Brian Tague, hangs next to a window looking out onto Rockland Harbor, where Wincapaw — a pioneer aviator who began flying in 1911 — had a seaplane base in the 1920s and 1930s. During the years he was based in Rockland, Wincapaw came to rely on lighthouses to help him get where he needed to go, especially at night and in bad weather. He came to know many of the area's lighthouse keepers and their families and visited them whenever he had the opportunity.
On Christmas Day 1929, Wincapaw loaded his plane with packages containing newspapers, magazine, coffee, candy, and other gifts. He flew over the lighthouses in the Penobscot Bay region, dropping the presents for the keepers and their families as a gesture of gratitude. Wincapaw expanded the route in the next few years. His son, Bill Wincapaw Jr., who became a licensed pilot at 16, eventually became a vital part of the flights.
Edward Rowe Snow of Winthrop, Massachusetts, became involved in 1936. After Capt. Wincapaw's death in a flying accident in 1947, Snow-who also became one of the most popular historians of the New England coast — became the sole Flying Santa. He continued the flights through 1980, often bringing gifts to well over 100 light stations and Coast Guard stations.
The Hull Lifesaving Museum of Massachusetts coordinated the Santa program from 1981 to 1997. Today, the tradition is maintained by the nonprofit Friends of Flying Santa, primarily as a means of saying “thank you” to Coast Guard families in the Northeast. Helicopters and pilots (who donate their time) today play the role of Santa's sleigh and reindeer.
Ted Panayotoff of the Maine Lighthouse Museum worked with the Friends of Flying Santa in advance of the October 14 event, preparing an exhibit on the history of the flights. He
welcomed people to the event on behalf of the museum and introduced Bob Hastings, the museum's managing director. Also on hand was George Morgan, who played the role of the Flying Santa for a number of years. Dave Waldrip, a member of the board of directors of the Friends of Flying Santa (and one of the organization's Santas since 1994), served as MC for the event.
The unveiling was technically more of an “unwrapping,” since the plaque was covered by bright Christmas wrapping paper. The unwrapping honors went jointly to Bill Wincapaw III, grandson of Capt. Wincapaw, and Ken “Mr. Lighthouse” Black, the retired Coast Guardsman who amassed most of the collection of lenses and other artifacts that now fills the halls of the Maine Lighthouse Museum. Bill Wincapaw III had traveled with his wife, Denise, from Georgia for the event, and other Wincapaw relatives had come from as far away as Florida.
Following the plaque ceremony, it was my pleasure to give a Powerpoint presentation on 77 wonderful years of Flying Santa history. For more information on the history and fundraising events, go to www.flyingsanta.org. For more on the Maine Lighthouse Museum, visit www.mainelighthousemuseum.com.
This story appeared in the
December 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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