Digest>Archives> March 2004


By Jeremy D'Entremont


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The Flying Santa helicopter by Plymouth “Gurnet” ...
Photo by: Dolly Bicknell

For the uninitiated, the holiday-season tradition of the Flying Santa dates back to 1929, when Maine pilot William Wincapaw (1885-1947) began dropping presents from his seaplane at lighthouses for keepers and their families as a way of showing his gratitude for their unselfish work. The flights were later picked up by Massachusetts historian Edward Rowe Snow (1902-1982), who continued them through 1980. The nonprofit Friends of Flying Santa continue the flights today, landing by helicopter at Coast Guard stations from Maine to New York, bringing presents, gratitude and holiday cheer to Coast Guard families.

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L to R: Friends of Flying Santa ...
Photo by: Laura Bicknell Carbone

The schedule of this past December’s Flying Santa flights was interrupted by stormy weather in the first half of the month, but the trips eventually went off without a hitch. The Massachusetts flight included a dozen stops from Newburyport to Cape Cod. The pilot was Evan Wile, who generously donated his services for the second year in a row. Santa for this flight was CWO Tom Guthlein, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Castle Hill, who first filled the role in 1997-98 and has just returned from a tour of duty in Virginia. Joining Tom for the first half of the flight was Captain Daniel May, commander of USCG Group Boston.

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“Elf” Seamond Ponsart Roberts and “Santa” Tom ...
Photo by: Jeremy D'Entremont

The Massachusetts flight included a special flyover of Hospital Point Lighthouse in Beverly, which is the home of First Coast Guard District Commander Rear Admiral Vivien S. Crea and her family. Admiral Crea, a helicopter pilot herself, said later, “Quite simply, we were thrilled to become part of such a wonderful tradition. I greatly admire the kindness and generosity of the many volunteers and contributors to the Flying Santa program.”

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Santa George Morgan, who is hanging up his red ...
Photo by: Jeremy D'Entremont

Along for the second half of the Massachusetts trip as Santa’s helper, or “elf,” was Seamond Ponsart Roberts of New Orleans, Louisiana. Seamond is the daughter of lighthouse keeper Octave Ponsart, and an episode from Seamond’s childhood days at Cuttyhunk Lighthouse off the Massachusetts coast is among the most famous tales in Flying Santa annals.

In 1945, when Seamond was barely five years old, Flying Santa Edward Rowe Snow dropped three packages for the Ponsarts at Cuttyhunk. One of the packages contained a doll intended for Seamond, and it struck a boulder when it landed. She couldn’t hold back the tears when she found the broken doll, even though her father did his best to fix it. Soon after this, the Cuttyhunk Light Station was closed down and the Ponsarts moved to West Chop Lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard.

When Edward Rowe Snow learned the doll had broken, he decided to make up for it. The following Christmas, Snow hired a helicopter and pilot and landed at Martha’s Vineyard, where he handed a brand-new doll to little Seamond. She now says that she “could not have ever felt more special in her life because this Flying Santa was kindness and love personified.” So recently when she was invited to fly along with Santa as an “elf,” Seamond said she “would walk from Louisiana if I had to, in order to do it.”

“The magic of the Flying Santa continues and is alive and well,” reports Seamond. Some of the stops this year had extra special meaning for her. At Plymouth Light (known to many simply as “The Gurnet”), she met Dolly Snow Bicknell, daughter of Edward Rowe Snow. Dolly is now president of Project Gurnet and Bug Lights, the nonprofit group caring for Plymouth Light and Duxbury Pier Light. Dolly was waiting for Santa and Seamond along with her daughter Laura and two grandchildren at the top of the lighthouse. “After many false alarms,” she says, “I could see Santa!”

“This was so wonderful for me,” says Seamond. “Dolly had dug some pictures out of her attic of her Dad and even a few of her Dad and me, along with his own Santa hat. I touched it and I swear I really felt five years old again.”

Seamond had corresponded with the Snow family for many years but had never before met Dolly, who flew with her father on his Santa flights every year from the year she was born in 1951 through 1980. “It was wonderful to be with Seamond,” says Dolly. “I’m so glad we got a chance to meet each other. Seamond was grinning from ear to ear and so was I, and we hugged and cried and it was wonderful.”

Among the later stops that day was one at West Chop Lighthouse, where Seamond’s family had lived for 11 years. “The children of the Coast Guard from Station Menemsha were there to greet us,” says Seamond, “and we had a great toy giveaway sitting on the very back porch where I had played many years.” With a few precious minutes to spare, Seamond had the opportunity to enter her old house, now used as Coast Guard vacation housing. “I was satisfied,” says Seamond. “I had been back into the cellar where I spent many hours playing with my cats or watching Dad make ship models. It was home, indeed.” Seamond also made a quick trip to the top of the lighthouse. Well, maybe not that quick. “I’m not — at least in body — the lighthouse kid I used to be,” she says. “It was hard to leave, but too exciting to miss the rest of the trip.”

The Maine-New Hampshire flight on the following Saturday marked a milestone. It was the final flight for George Morgan of Hull, Massachusetts, who is retiring from his Santa duties after 22 years of the flights. He first became involved in 1982, not long after the Hull Lifesaving Museum had taken over the flights from Edward Rowe Snow. He eventually became director of the museum’s Flying Santa program, and he and a small group of volunteers founded the Friends of Flying Santa, Inc. in 1997. Over the years George, now 72 years old, has worked tirelessly to raise funds and publicity for the Santa flights.

The pilots for the day were longtime Flying Santa veterans Art Godjikian and LaRay Todd. “The Maine flight went well. The weather was perfect,” reports George Morgan. The first stop of the day at Coast Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor in New Hampshire was well attended as always. “Always have a great time there. It sets the mood for the day,” says George. He closed his visit there with a rousing sing-along of “Jingle Bells.” This was quickly followed by stops at Goat Island, Portland Head Light, Boothbay Harbor and Pemaquid Point Light in Maine. “Pemaquid Point is always a great stop,” says George. “Lots of kids just the right age ready to get Santa’s ear for a few moments to complete their Christmas list.”

A good turnout greeted Santa at Owls Head Light Station, including Ken Black (director of the Maine Lighthouse Museum) and his wife Dot Black (co-chair of the Friends of Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse). Santa George Morgan gave Dot’s granddaughter some extra attention.

About 100 kids greeted Santa at Vinalhaven Island, home of Brown’s Head Lighthouse. At Fort Point Light in Stockton Springs, resident caretakers Terry and Jeri Cole had arranged for 25 hearing-impaired children to be on hand along with two sign-language interpreters. Following were visits to Dice Head Lighthouse in Castine and Coast Guard stations at Southwest Harbor and Jonesport. At Jonesport, the personnel timed things so that Santa arrived in the middle of their Christmas party.

The final Flying Santa flight this year was the next day, covering stops in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Long Island. Santa for this flight was Coast Guard CWO Dave Waldrip, who is stationed at Naval Engineering Support Unit Boston. Dave has flown as Santa since 1994, minus a couple of years when he was stationed in Alaska. The helicopter services were provided compliments of pilots Glenn Hanson and Lou Belloisy. This was the second year that Glenn has donated the use of his Jet Ranger for the Santa flights. Dave met with Friends of Flying Santa president and photographer Brian Tague at 5 a.m. and drove from Massachusetts to Connecticut for takeoff. First stop was Warwick Light Station, home of CDR Tom Jones, commander of Civil Engineering Unit Providence. The rest of the day included visits to Prudence Island, Station Castle Hill, Station Point Judith, Lynde Point Light, Stratford Point Light and finally Station Eatons Neck on Long Island, where the pilots were happy to tour the lighthouse and take photos of its second order Fresnel lens.

Dave Waldrip says the flights were “once again a success due to the hard work of all the members of the board, volunteers, people who graciously contribute to the program, and of course the pilots and owners of the helicopters.” Brian Tague, who has put countless hours of work into keeping this tradition going and has flown along as Santa’s photographer since 1991, points out that 2004’s flights will be extra special as it will be the 75th anniversary of William Wincapaw’s first flight.

For the complete history of the Flying Santa, news of upcoming fundraising tours and events, as well as photos from the 2003 flights, check out the Friends of Flying Santa web site at www.flyingsanta.org.

This story appeared in the March 2004 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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