A History of the Flying Santas Who Brought Christmas to Lighthouses
Edward Rowe Snow waited for just the right moment to throw the doll out of the plane. It was December 1945, and Snow had finally gotten postwar clearance to resume his air drops of gift packages along the New England coastline. With a pilot and a rented aircraft, Snow would lean out of the plane in full Santa Claus regalia, beard blowing in the wind, and toss toys, toiletries, and coffee to the families occupying the lighthouses below.
At Cuttyhunk Island off the coast of Massachusetts, Snow and his pilot buzzed lighthouses at speeds of 70 to 90 miles per hour. When he was positioned over the Ponsart family's property, he dropped a package. Unbeknownst to him, it landed directly on a pile of rocks, smashing the contents and the doll inside to pieces. Seamond Ponsart, the 5-year-old girl who was the intended recipient, ran out and saw the doll had not survived the impact.
Snow would return the following year with a rented helicopter, lowering himself to the ground and handing another doll directly to Ponsart. Along with a few smashed fences and skylights, it was a rare miss for the man who was carrying on the mantle of what lighthouse keepers and isolated Coast Guard employees dubbed the Flying Santa, bearer of gifts to the most remote places across the coast.
It was floatplane pilot William Wincapaw who first took flight in a red suit. Living on the Maine coast in the 1920s, Wincapaw frequently transported sick or injured islanders to the mainland. Sometimes forced to fly in less than ideal conditions, he used lighthouses to keep himself oriented.
“Back in the early days of aviation, they didn’t have the avionics or technical equipment they have now,” Brian Tague, a historian for the Friends of Flying Santa society, tells mental_floss. “In the evenings, you’d just see these flashes from the lighthouses.”
Wincapaw got to know these keepers, who often had families but made only irregular visits into town for supplies. The holidays could be a particularly sad time, since gifts and other treats weren’t easily obtained. In 1929, Wincapaw decided to buzz the lighthouses around Penobscot Bay with care packages full of tea, reading material, and toys.
“It was a complete surprise to them,” Tague says. “They just found these packages on the island.”
It wasn’t hard to figure out who was responsible. Wincapaw began making the drops annually, working his route up to 91 lighthouses by 1933. He would often don a Santa outfit, even though he would rarely be visible from the ground. (“It probably just got him in the mood,” Tague says.) With the outbreak of World War II, he began to label his plane with the phrase “Christmas Seal Plane” to avoid being mistaken for an enemy craft. When he left for work in South America, his 16-year-old son, Bill Jr., became one of the youngest pilots in Massachusetts to earn his license. With Edward Snow, who was a teacher at Paul’s school, the Flying Santa missions continued in William’s absence.
In 1947, when Wincapaw suffered a fatal heart attack during a non-holiday flight, the duties fell exclusively on Snow’s shoulders. Unable to fly himself, he would hire pilots to make the drops from Maine to Long Island while he rode as a passenger. Leaning out, his fake beard would sometimes blow off his face from the winds. Occasionally, packages would smash car windows; for the most part, Snow would get back self-addressed stamped envelopes he left in the boxes that reported the items were received safely.
“Snow had a huge interest in lighthouses,” Tague says. “He had the resources to charter planes and put packages together.”
Snow bore all the expenses of his Santa runs, and the family lived frugally to afford the expenses. “We always had piles of stuff around the house waiting to be bundled,” his daughter, Dolly Snow Bicknell, recalled. An only child, she went with her parents on the flights, which she said were “bumpy, rough, and scary”—the planes flew low and slow to ensure an accurate delivery. By the 1970s, Snow’s efforts were being curtailed by new Federal Aviation Administration regulations that prohibited low-altitude flights. To get around it, he resurrected the idea of using a helicopter to make landings and dispense presents personally.
Snow died in 1982. He had been making the Santa runs since 1936.
Tague got involved in 1991, when his lighthouse photography work caught the attention of the Flying Santa program’s primary sponsor, the Hull Lifesaving Museum in Hull, Massachusetts. “I thought it would be a one-time thing,” he says of riding along with the pilots hired by the Museum.
It wasn’t. Every year, Tague helps arrange a squad of helicopter pilots and Santas to take 300-mile treks along the East Coast and around New England. While modern lighthouses are mainly automated, the Coast Guard employs hundreds of families in outposts for boat stations, maintenance, search and rescue, and other endeavors. Tague estimates they reach roughly 950 children with their scheduled stops.
The gifts are typically bought with money from fundraisers arranged under the Friends of Flying Santa, a Hull offshoot program, and are wrapped and labeled with a child’s name that’s collected in advance before the copter lands. The packages have contained stuffed animals, commemorative Santa flight souvenirs, potato chips, gift cards, and gum. Santa will meet with upwards of 400 kids and pose for a picture before climbing back on board.
“We still make two air drops,” Tague says. “One to the Hospital Point lighthouse in Massachusetts, and one to the Coast Guard admiral, where there’s no place to land.”
For kids who would otherwise miss out on a lot of holiday festivities, the Flying Santas continue to provide a welcome reminder of seasonal spirit. In 2003, Tague was even able to track down Seamond Ponsart, the woman who had seen Santa land on the island with a doll for her in 1946, in New Orleans. He invited the retiree to come on board for a round of gift drop-offs.
“She got a chance to return to her childhood home,” Tague recalls. “She was thrilled to be a part of delivering toys to a new generation of kids. It was something that had stayed with her throughout her entire life.”