The Flying Lighthouse Santa
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
It starts with a low rumble. As the noise grows louder, I shade my eyes with a cupped hand and look up at the blue sky. Overhead, the roar approaches and its source comes into view—half plane and half boat.
Since I grew up on the California desert, floatplanes are still a surprise for me to see. These amphibious planes often fly to the San Juan Islands near my home now in the Pacific Northwest.
And whenever I see floatplanes, I think of a storied name in lighthouse history: Captain William Wincapaw. A pioneering and accomplished pilot, he flew many types of aircraft, but when he settled into an amphibious plane, he felt the most "at home." .
Across the country from my San Juan Islands, Capt. Wincapaw flew among the the islands of Penobscot Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Maine. There, as part of his pilot duties, he conveyed ill or injured island residents to places where they could get help. Using his pilot skills and experience in difficult circumstances, he was credited with saving many lives .
It was in a blinding December snowstorm of 1929 that Capt. Wincapaw flew on through the night, trying to find his way. His destination of Rockland, Maine seemed like a lost dream as he peered through the falling whiteness. He had quite a bit of experience flying in harsh weather, but this time he was unsure and disoriented in the swirling whiteness.
Then, a flash of light came. He recognized the beacon of Dice Head Light, found his bearings, and made his way to safety .
In gratitude, Capt. Wincapaw took to the skies again a few days later. He dropped a Christmas package to the lighthouse keeper and the rest of the hardworking family at Dice Head.
As he headed back home, he realized other lighthouse families, who did so much for others, might also find encouragement from Christmas gifts dropped from the sky. Those early packages contained newspapers, magazines, candy, coffee, and other items highly prized by lighthouse families.
In this way, Capt. Wincapaw began the tradition of the Flying Santa, eventually expanding to many other lighthouses, particularly along the New England coast. His son, Bill, Jr. and the festively-named Edward Rowe Snow continued the tradition. Mr. Snow, a noted New England historian and author, became the "Flying Santa" for nearly 50 years .
Lighthouse children eagerly listened for the roar of the plane’s engines every December. Along with the gifts, the Flying Santa volunteers brought hope and a great deal of fun to lighthouse families. In an isolated world, especially during the harsh winters, they knew they were not forgotten.
Lighthouse expert Elinor DeWire writes that Capt. Wincapaw thought "all lighthouse families ought to be remembered during the holidays for their benevolent services, especially at Christmas when the symbolism of light to guide the way was foremost in everyone's heart" .
Volunteers begin early every year to gear up for the Christmas flights. Now using helicopters, the dedicated Flying Santa delivers Christmas cheer and packages to show appreciation to the men, women, and families of the Coast Guard.
In the generous spirit of the season, Capt. Wincapaw's original mission of gratitude to those who watch over our coastal waters continues.
To find out more, attend the new 2022 Third Annual Virtual Gala about all things Flying Santa! Hosted by the United States Lighthouse Society. For more videos and podcasts, make sure to subscribe to the Lighthouse Society's Youtube channel here.
1. Tague, Brian. The Origins and History of the Flying Santa. Friends of the Flying Santa website. [Accessed 11 December 2020].
3. DeWire, Elinor. Guardians Of The Lights. Pineapple Press, 2007.