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Friends of Flying Santa
Friends of Flying Santa

A History of the Flying Santas Who Brought Christmas to Lighthouses

Friends of Flying Santa
Friends of Flying Santa

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.

Friends of Flying Santa

 
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.

Friends of Flying Santa

 
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.”

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This Just In
Flights Grounded After World War II Bomb Discovered Near London City Airport
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

London City Airport grounded all flights on the night of February 11, after a World War II bomb was found in the neighboring River Thames, The Guardian reports.

The half-ton bomb was revealed Sunday morning by development work taking place at the King George V Dock. Following its discovery, police set up a 702-foot exclusion zone around the area, closing local roads and shutting down the London City Airport until further notice. According to the BBC, 261 trips were scheduled to fly in and out of London City Airport on Monday. Some flights are being rerouted to nearby airports, while others have been canceled altogether.

The airport will reopen as soon as the explosive device has been safely removed. For that to happen, the Met police must first wait for the river's tide to recede. Then, once the bomb is exposed, they can dislodge it from the riverbed and tow it to a controlled explosion site.

The docks of London’s East End were some of the most heavily bombed points in the city during World War II. Germany’s Blitz lasted 76 nights, and as the latest unexpected discovery shows, bombs that never detonated are still being cleaned up from parks and rivers more than 75 years later.

[h/t The Guardian]

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History
Why Amelia Earhart Is Remembered as One of History's Most Famous Female Pilots
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Amelia Earhart was a legend even before she mysteriously disappeared in 1937 while flying around the world. But the aviator's fame wasn't entirely based on skill alone. As Vox explains, Earhart's reputation eclipsed that of several contemporaries who were equally—if not more—talented than “Lady Lindy." So why did Earhart's name go down in history books instead of theirs?

In addition to her talent and courage, Earhart’s international fame could be chalked up to ceaseless self-promotion and a strategic marriage. It all started in 1928, when socialite Amy Phipps Guest and publishing juggernaut George Putnam handpicked the then-amateur pilot to become the first woman to be flown in a plane across the Atlantic Ocean. Earhart wasn't involved with the actual flight process, but the trip still established her as the new female face of aviation (and introduced her to Putnam, her future husband).

After completing the transatlantic journey, Earhart’s profile rose sky-high as she gave public lectures, wrote an aviation column for Cosmopolitan magazine, performed stunts like flying solo across the Atlantic (a feat that was first achieved by Charles Lindbergh in 1927), and endorsed everything from cigarettes to designer luggage. Her celebrity was ultimately cemented with her marriage to Putnam, who orchestrated savvy promotional opportunities to keep his wife’s name in the paper.

Learn more about Earhart’s rise to fame by watching Vox’s video below.

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