Most American children know that Santa Claus arrives on Christmas Eve driving a reindeer-powered sleigh. What most of those children don’t know is that Santa also travels by helicopter doing 160 miles per hour. Flying Santa, as he has come to be known, visits lighthouses and Coast Guard stations along the East Coast from Jonesport, Maine, to Long Island, N.Y., early each December.

The Flying Santa program began in 1929 with aviation pioneer Captain William Wincapaw. Wincapaw, who was born in Friendship, Maine, was a floatplane pilot based in Rockland.

Wincapaw often flew to the islands in bad weather to transport sick or injured islanders to the mainland. He held a special appreciation for the lighthouse keepers along the coast, as he often relied on lighthouses to navigate his course.

The lighthouse keepers watched out for Wincapaw as well, relaying word back to the airfield when he had passed their position. While making deliveries in Penobscot Bay one December day, Wincapaw was unexpectedly caught in a whiteout with dangerously high winds. With zero visibility, Wincapaw lost his way.

To make matters worse, he was running low on fuel and the plane began icing up. Just when he began thinking the worst, Wincapaw saw a light through the storm. It was Dice Head Lighthouse at Castine.

Using this light and six others along the Maine coast, Wincapaw was able to make it safely back to Rockland and to his wife and son.

After this harrowing adventure, Wincapaw wanted to show his appreciation to the lighthouse keepers and their families, and on Dec. 25, 1929, Wincapaw took again to the skies, this time with his son Bill, Jr. and a planeload of packages containing things such as newspapers, magazines, candy, coffee, tea and toys for the children – commonplace items for most, but luxuries for people living on isolated islands.

The captain and his son flew around to the lighthouses in the Penobscot Bay area and dropped the modest gifts on the keepers’ lawns. Then they flew home to spend the rest of the day with Mrs. Wincapaw.

Wincapaw’s gesture of appreciation was well received, and he soon decided that the lighthouse families deserved an annual visit. Wincapaw’s route was expanded to include more of the lighthouse families and Coast Guard stations along the coast.

Thus began a 75-year-old tradition. Since 1929 Flying Santa has undergone a slow but steady evolution. In 1936 Wincapaw accepted a job in Bolivia and handed the Flying Santa torch to author and historian Edward Rowe Snow. Snow was the first of many to succeed Wincapaw in the role of Flying Santa.

The next big change was trading planes for helicopters. In the early 1980s the Flying Santa program was incorporated into the Hull Lifesaving Museum in Hull, Massachusetts, but by 1997 the program outgrew its home there.

The Friends of Flying Santa was established as a non-profit educational entity, run entirely by volunteers. Flights north of Massachusetts were suspended in 1987, due to the automation of lighthouses. However, Flying Santa returned to Maine and New Hampshire in 1995. By that time, some lighthouses were used as Coast Guard housing, or in the case of Brown’s Head Light on Vinalhaven, town-owned housing for the Town Manager.

Brian Tague is a volunteer at Friends of Flying Santa. Tague wrote a history of Flying Santa for the Friends’ website and has accompanied Santa on his flights for years, documenting the program through photographs. “Back in the 80’s it wasn’t like today,” said Tague. “If there were kids at the stops, great. If not, oh well. Now we find kids at every stop.” These days, Coast Guard personnel gather their families to greet Flying Santa at the lighthouses and stations.

Vinalhaven is the only stop where Flying Santa’s visit is open to the public. Here, local children are invited to come with their parents to watch Flying Santa’s impressive arrival and meet the man in red. Today the program is bigger than it has ever been, making more stops and reaching more people, especially more children, than ever before.

It takes two Santas three days to deliver 500 toys. There are three pick-up/fuel-up points along the way. This year, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Guttlein of Newport, R.I., will play Flying Santa for the Maine run. According to Tague, Guttlein has been involved with Flying Santa since 1991, and has played the role since 1997.

Pilots Art Godjikian and LaRay Todd donate their time to fly Santa up and down the coast year after year. “They are as much a part of the program as Santa,” said Tague. Fisher Scientific, a New Hampshire company, has donated use of its corporate helicopter since 1995.

The Friends of Flying Santa have added a new facet to their program this year with the addition of a college scholarship program for Coast Guard dependents. Captain Wincapaw’s example of gratitude toward the lighthouse families of the past and the Coast Guard families of the present has endured in New England for 75 years, and as long as there are those who believe in Flying Santa, his legacy is likely to continue.

To find out more about Flying Santa or to see photos of Flying Santa’s stops, visit