Most children find Santa — yawn — in the mall.
But for 700 Coast Guard kids and their families across six states, in 33 locations from Jones Beach in New York to Jonesport, Maine, Santa finds them every December — flying in by helicopter.
No matter which Coast Guard station Santa is visiting, the scene is the same. Like on Dec. 15 in Hull, where 60 to 70 youngsters and their parents enjoyed hot chocolate, eggnog, and Christmas cookies inside the mess hall while they waited. Suddenly, there was a shout: “Here comes Santa!”
Everyone ran outside to watch, wave, and wait. After circling three times, the chopper finally landed and Santa emerged with a large green sack filled with gifts.
The scene was repeated across the region, including at stops in Gloucester, Newburyport, Portsmouth, N.H., and Scituate, this month.
Brian Tague, a Stoneham resident, receives heaps of credit for sustaining the program, which dates to 1929. As director of the nonprofit Friends of Flying Santa for the past 22 years, Tague, like his score of volunteers, doesn’t receive a salary, yet treats his responsibilities like a job.
As a professional photographer, Tague has specialized in snapping images of wildlife, lighthouses, and New England landscapes for more than 25 years. He observed firsthand the dedication of Coast Guard men and women while photographing stations, boats, and aircraft. In 1991, he became the official Flying Santa photographer.
Today, he’s the president of the program’s board of trustees, its unofficial historian, and Christmas shopper extraordinaire.
Imagine shopping for 700 presents. Tague said he starts in mid-September, buying each gift, for $10 to $12, with donations raised from various events, such as sold-out Cape Cod lighthouse cruises narrated by Jeremy D’Entremont, a renowned author and historian.
“One hundred percent raised goes straight into the program,” said Tague.
With typically two volunteers filling Santa’s role and requiring multiple helicopter flights spread over four days in early to mid-December, Tague’s coordination of scheduling is critical.
New England weather adds an unknown factor. Though the trip to the Coast Guard station in Portsmouth, N.H., early this month went off without a hitch, subsequent flights were postponed by fog, wind, and rain. Tague twice had to reschedule the trip stopping in Scituate, Hull, Newburyport, and Gloucester. Finally, the sun came out last weekend and Flying Santa completed his last series of stops this season through blue skies.
Throughout the day, crowds of delighted kids and their families greeted Santa, first at Scituate Light, then at Coast Guard Station Point Allerton in Hull. Santa also made a special drop-and-greet landing, complete with candy canes, at the nearby Hull Lifesaving Museum, to the delight of about 100 local kids and their parents. He then flew off to complete the day’s rounds with stops at Coast Guard stations in Gloucester and Newburyport.
For the past 12 years, three helicopter companies have donated aircraft and services, said Tague, saving the Friends of Flying Santa an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 a year. He praises the pilots: Evan Wile, Greg Harville, and George Louzek of Granite State Aviation, and Ray Newcomb and Kurt West of JBI Helicopters.
“Their generosity blows me away,” Tague said. “If not for the pilots and helicopter owners, we’d be the ‘Driving Santa’ program.”
Wile’s reason for getting involved is personal. “My uncle was a captain in the Coast Guard in the ’50s,” he said. “I donate the flights in his name.”
The appreciation goes both ways. Wile said that one year, Tom Guthlein, who recently retired from the Coast Guard as a chief warrant officer but who has served in the select corps of Flying Santas since 1997, took the captain’s hat that was worn by Wile’s uncle and had it fixed and the gold rebraided.
The “Flying Santa” tradition began in 1929 when Captain Bill Wincapaw, a Maine floatplane pilot and aviation pioneer, decided to drop small gifts to lighthouse keepers in gratitude for their work maintaining the beacons, which for early aviators and mariners was their only navigational tool.
Wincapaw flew to a dozen lighthouses on the Maine coast that year, tossing wrapped gifts — purchased at his own expense — of newspapers, candy, magazines, and coffee.
The much-appreciated deliveries by “Flying Santa” became an annual tradition, and expanded over the years to cover the rest of the New England coast and part of New York.Continued...