Maine

The Flying Santa of Coastal New England

Flying Santa, 1937

The New England Flying Santa tradition was born in the teeth of a fierce winter storm when lighthouse beacons along Penobscot Bay guided a frightened pilot home to safety.

Flying Santa, 1937

Flying Santa, 1937. All photos courtesy Friends of Flying Santa.

That frightened pilot was a Friendship, Maine, native named William Wincapaw. He showed his gratitude to the lighthouse keepers by dropping packages of treats for their families from his plane. He was the first Flying Santa.

Since 1929, Flying Santas have dropped Christmas presents for New England lighthouse keepers and their families from float planes, biplanes, a DC-3 and helicopters.

No Radar, No Radios

Bill Wincapaw was a skilled floatplane pilot who flew mail, medicine and supplies to remote coastal communities. He also flew sick and injured people to safety or to get medical help, often in bad weather.

It was a dangerous job. In those days, pilots flew by dead reckoning or with rudimentary navigational aids and landmarks. Radar hadn’t been invented yet, and airplanes had no radios.

In 1929, Wincapaw got lost in a winter storm over the North Atlantic. His compass wasn’t working and his plane was dangerously low on fuel. Finally, he was relieved to spot the beam of a lighthouse--and then another. He followed the beacons to a safe landing.

That wasn’t the only time lighthouse beacons saved Wincapaw’s life in a storm. The lighthouse keepers looked out for him through the year, and relayed back to the airfield when he safely passed their stations.

Capt. William H. Wincapaw

Capt. William H. Wincapaw

Wincapaw knew the lives of the lighthouse keepers and their families were hard, lonely and monotonous. He started landing near the lighthouses from time to time to thank them and to chat with the keepers. He eventually concluded he wasn’t doing enough to show his appreciation. So on Christmas Day 1929 he loaded his plane with a dozen packages of newspapers, magazines, coffee, candy, tobacco, soap and yarn. He took off into the air and dropped them, one by one, to the lighthouse keepers in the Rockland, Maine, region.

Dressing the Part of Santa

Wincapaw thought the small luxuries would help make the lighthouse keepers’ isolated lives more bearable, and he was right. A few days after that first Christmas flight, he was surprised to see a message staked out in the snow. A lighthouse keeper’s wife had used old newspapers to spell out ‘Thank you.’ Wincapaw vowed to do it again.

The next year he added more lighthouses and Coast Guard stations to his route. His young son Bill, an aspiring pilot, helped him out. When Wincapaw learned they called him the Flying Santa, he began to dress the part during the Christmas flights.

Bill would get his pilot’s license at 16 and start flying solo. By 1933, father and son were delivering Christmas packages to 91 lighthouses. Local businesses such as LaTouraine Coffee helped underwrite the cost of the packages and the flight.

But it was getting to be too much.

Capt. Wincapaw and son Bill

Capt. Wincapaw and son Bill

Enter Edward Rowe Snow

The Wincapaws moved to Winthrop, Mass., in 1933, and they could not have known how fortuitous their choice of a new home would be. Bill attended Winthrop High School, where he took history from a 31-year-old teacher named Edward Rowe Snow.

Snow, descended from sea captains, loved history, adventure, treasure hunts and the New England coast. He would write over 100 publications in his lifetime. Two years after teaching Bill Wincapaw he would become famous for a book, The Islands of Boston Harbor.  His vivid stories made him an increasingly popular lecturer, columnist for the Quincy Patriot Ledger and radio host. He would campaign successfully to save Fort Warren on Georges Island in Boston Harbor.

All that was in the future when Bill introduced Snow to his dad. Bill Sr.  asked him if he’d like to help with the Flying Santas. Snow enthusiastically agreed. That year, 1936, Bill Jr. and Snow flew to 25 lighthouses and Coast Guard stations in southern New England. Bill Sr. flew the northern route.

Flying Santa Snow

Flying Santa Edward Rowe Snow

In 1938, Bill Sr. got a job flying gold and mining equipment over the jungles of South America. He couldn’t make it back for Christmas, so he asked Snow and his son to take over. They did fine.

There was just one thing: Snow wasn’t a pilot. When Bill joined his father in South America, Snow would spend his own money to hire a pilot and an aircraft. His wife Anna-Myrle would join him, and eventually their daughter Dolly would too. The Snow family would become the heart and soul of the Flying Santas.

World War II

The Flying Santas almost didn’t make it through the 1940s because of World War II. In 1941, Snow managed to drop 35 packages, his pilot carefully avoiding high-security installations. The plane was painted with the words ‘Christmas Seal Plane’ so it wouldn’t be mistaken for enemy aircraft.

There was no Flying Santa in 1942.

Bill Jr. was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, ferrying bombers to England before he was stationed at Quonset Naval Air Station in Rhode Island. Bill Sr. became chief of maintenance, ‘so Billy’s ship would be running right.’ Ed Snow was in North Africa, commissioned as a lieutenant in Army Air Corps  XII Bomber Command. Wounded in a bombing mission in late 1942, he spent Christmas in a hospital bed recovering.

Snow’s injuries caused him to be discharged from the Army in 1943. He told a radio interviewer he planned to visit the lighthouses by car and boat. A U.S. government pilot happened to hear him, and arranged for Boston’s Fighter Wing and the Civil Aeronautics Administration to continue the Flying Santa tradition that year.

The Flying Santas rebounded after the war ended. In 1946, Bill Jr. flew a DC-3 along the northern leg, his dad dropping the packages. Snow and his pilot flew the southern tier. It took two days for them to fly 115 lighthouses and Coast Guard stations from Cohasset to Canadian border.

Flying Santas Ed, Dolly and Anna-Myrle Snow

Flying Santas Ed, Dolly and Anna-Myrle Snow

The Torch Is Passed

On July 16, 1947, 62-year-old Bill Wincapaw suffered a heart attack shortly after taking off in a seaplane from Rockland Harbor. The plane nosedived into the water, and he and his 20-year-old passenger were killed. The memorial service three days later was attended by lighthouse keepers, their families and Coast Guard, Army and Navy representatives. As the service began at 2 pm, foghorns and lighthouse warning bells rang out along Penobscot Bay. During his Christmas flight that year, Ed Snow dropped a memorial wreath over Rockland Harbor in honor of William Wincapaw.

Snow honored him another way: by dropping 175 packages from Canada to Florida. By then the packages included more products donated by New England businesses, such as Gillette razor blades, LaTouraine coffee, tea, dolls, pen and pencil sets – and Ed Snow’s latest book. The package included dog biscuits if he knew the family had a dog. They came with a self-addressed card so the lighthouse keepers could let him know if the Christmas packages were delivered safely.

They weren’t always. One year Snow dropped a package through the skylight of the lighthouse keeper’s house at Ipswich Light. On Monhegan Island, he took out a row of picket fencing. Sometimes the wind blew off his fake beard. One January he received them in the mail with the message “Here are your whiskers, where is our package?”

The Doll Disaster

Snow always reimbursed the lighthouse keepers for damage, and the cost of insurance was a major Flying Santa expense.

In 1945, Seamond Ponsart, the five-year-old daughter of a lighthouse keeper on Cuttyhunk Island, desperately wanted a doll for Christmas. Flying Santa flew by and dropped her family's package on a rock, smashing the doll. Ponsart was heartbroken. Her father bandaged the doll and gave her a crutch so Seamond would at least have a sick doll. But it wasn’t the same. The next year, the family moved to West Chop Light on Martha’s Vineyard.

Lighthouse keeper family waves to Flying Santa, 1946

Lighthouse keeper family waves to Flying Santa, 1946

Snow knew about the doll disaster. On Dec. 12, 1947, he chartered one of the first commercial helicopters to fly to nearby Gay Head Lifesaving Station, where the Ponsart family greeted him. Snow handed the doll to a delighted Seamond. “Like a fairy tale, I had Santa Claus hand me a doll to replace the broken one,” she later recalled. (Watch a 13-second video of Snow and Seamond here.) Seamond Ponsart would join the Coast Guard and in 2003 flew in a helicopter with Flying Santa. She called it ‘a top event of my lifetime.’

Winding Up

Snow brought Flying Santa to new heights during the 1950s. In 1953, Flying Santa went coast to coast on Coast Guard aircraft. He delivered packages along the East Coast on Christmas morning, flew to the West Coast and dropped packages from San Pedro to Tillamook Rock Light. He added lighthouses and lifesaving stations in the Great Lakes and Bermuda. In 1954, he delivered packages to Sable Island, 100 miles east of Nova Scotia. The plane landed and Snow got into a wagon drawn by semi-wild ponies to deliver packages to the island’s 26 inhabitants.

By the 1970s, Flying Santa was cut back due to flight restrictions, mounting costs and Snow’s age. In 1972 he had to travel to the Boston Harbor islands by boat and car. The next year he visited the Casco Bay Islands by boat. Bad weather caused them to cancel most of their visits in 1974. Finally he hit on a solution: He chartered a helicopter the next year, a big thrill for lighthouse keepers’ children.

Ed Snow on Goat Island in 1978

Ed Snow on Goat Island in 1978

In 1981, Snow retired from his duties as Flying Santa after 45 years. In a ceremony at the Hull Lifesaving Museum, he presented his Santa suit to Ed McCabe, the first of the next generation of flying Santa.  Friends of Flying Santa was formed from the Museum.

Edward Rowe Snow died in 1982. Flying Santa flights continue to this day.

Thanks to Joe McHugh for his book, The Flying Santa and especially to the Friends of Flying Santa. All photos courtesy Friends of Flying Santa. This story is updated from the 2013 version.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Molly Landrigan

    Molly Landrigan

    December 24, 2013 at 11:40 am

    What a wonderful story and what a wonderful day to add it to your site! It made me happy just to read it. Thanks and Merry Christmas to all.

  2. Paul Piva

    Paul Piva

    December 24, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Boy, I missed Mr. Snow. The biggest thrill I had growing up, was taking the Boston Island cruises, with Mr. Snow narrating all of the historical sites.

  3. Dana McPhee

    Dana McPhee

    December 24, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Edward Rowe Snow was a real presence in Boston and New England, and his efforts were a major factor in the preservation of the Boston Harbor Islands. I remember his Flying Santa trips always making the news…until I read this, I thought he had started the tradition, and not a William Wincapaw and his son…an even more interesting story…

  4. Donna McCulloch Brown

    Donna McCulloch Brown

    December 24, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    You do a great job

  5. Kathy Caslin

    Kathy Caslin

    December 24, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    I did some extensive research a few years ago into the legend of “The Black Lady of Fort Warren”, and Edward Rowe Snow. We all owe a lot to Mr. Snow. He was more a storyteller than a true historian, but we all get to visit the Harbor Islands because of his work. May we be forever in your debt, Mr. Snow.

  6. Alison Herman Schooley

    Alison Herman Schooley

    December 24, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Wow, I never heard of that! Thank you for putting the story out there for all of us.

  7. Lori Jones

    Lori Jones

    December 24, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    FYI: I like many of the stories you guys post, 🙂 but I find it frustrating that you never/almost never post years, or at least approximate years of anything/most things.

  8. New England Historical Society

    New England Historical Society

    December 24, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    ^Lori, If you follow the link to our website, you’ll find we always post years.

  9. Kimberly Anne DiStefano

    Kimberly Anne DiStefano

    December 25, 2013 at 9:16 am

    ❤️Love This❤️

  10. Lori Jones

    Lori Jones

    December 25, 2013 at 9:27 am

    I do not always follow the links where it says “read more”. So, It is nice to see such w/o having to “read more”. 🙂

  11. George Chapman

    George Chapman

    December 25, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Went to a presentation by Snow sometime in the 1960s somewhere on Long Island—he was a good story teller.

  12. Gordon Harris

    December 24, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Children were all assembled at the Ipswich Lighthouse, waiting for Fying Santa Edward Snow, who was running a bit behind schedule. Hearing the sound of an airplane, the keeper called up to his wife, “Has Santa arrived yet, dear?” Immediately he heard the Christmas bundle crashing through the skylight, upon which his wife yelled down, “Yes, dear. We can start the party now.” Read more about the Ipswich lighthouse, which was moved to Martha’s Vineyard at http://ipswich.wordpress.com/the-ipswich-lighthouse/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top