Originally created 12/25/96

Pilot plays Santa for lighthouse keepers



Associated PressNEW CASTLE, N.H. - It was the week before Christmas in 1929 and William Wincapaw was lost in a snowstorm off the Maine coast, running low on both fuel and hope.

Desperately, the cargo pilot circled his float plane above the gale-lashed waters of Penobscot Bay and glimpsed a light blinking through the snow: the Dyce Head Lighthouse.

His location established, Mr. Wincapaw set his course, following the beacons of six more lighthouses home, finally running out of fuel on the runway.

A few days later, he loaded his plane with seven wooden boxes stuffed with gifts and supplies and retraced his flight, dropping the packages on the lawns of the lighthouse keepers who had saved his life.

Each Christmas since, those who tend the isolated lights on the islands and headlands along the rugged coast from Maine to Rhode Island have been visited by a succession of flying Santas.

George Morgan of Hull, Mass., is the latest to carry on the tradition for Mr. Wincapaw, now dead.

"When you climb out of a helicopter and 25 young faces are there to greet you because you're probably the only Santa they're going to see, that's when the season comes to life for me," said Mr. Morgan, 63, a retired nursing home administrator who took over the role in the early 1980s.

Nowadays, most lighthouses are automated and lighthouse keepers have all but disappeared. The presents go largely to the children of the Coast Guardsmen who maintain the beacons.

Seven youngsters were on hand last week as Mr. Morgan flew into the New Castle Coast Guard station, which maintains three lighthouses in Portsmouth Harbor along the Maine-New Hampshire line.

Sitting in the station's cramped dining area overlooking the rocky coast, the youngsters peered out the windows and tugged at their parents as Santa was delayed by overcast skies.

"He's been waiting all year for this," said Nicole Vennard of Lebanon, Maine, nodding toward her 3-year-old son, Matthew. "Santa doesn't come in a sleigh as far as he's concerned. He tells everybody Santa comes in a helicopter because that's all he's ever seen."

When Mr. Morgan arrived, Matthew's 2-year-old sister, Andrea, sat on his lap throughout the 20-minute visit. Each child got a toy, and the Coast Guardsmen got snacks, magazines, a pound of coffee, a pound of tea and a Bible - the same items Mr. Wincapaw packed nearly 70 years ago.

"We keep as close to the old tradition as we can," Morgan said. "That's the way it should be."

By the mid-1930s, Mr. Wincapaw was visiting 117 New England lighthouses, from West Quaddy Head Light in the Bay of Fundy to Watch Hill, R.I. That number dwindled to about a dozen by 1984 as manned lighthouses were replaced with automated lights and navigation aids.

Mr. Morgan has expanded the list again. He estimates he will pass out 560 gifts at 27 lighthouses in five states this Christmas.

The maritime museum in Hull took over the Flying Santa Program in 1981 and raised about $7,000 in donations this year to pay for gifts and transportation.

"No one wants to see the tradition die," Mr. Morgan said. "It keeps the magic in Christmas."

Mr. Morgan remembers one of his first Christmas flights, when a neighbor gave him a huge train set at the last minute to pass out to some little boy. Mr. Morgan wrapped the gift, but it wouldn't fit into the helicopter's cargo area. He had to hold it on his lap for the trip out to a remote lighthouse at the tip of Cape Cod.

"There were three or four families out there, and I remembered there were several young boys," Mr. Morgan said.

A 4-year-old boy named Jeffrey and his father were the first two to greet the helicopter, so Mr. Morgan handed him the big package before the other children arrived.

"I bent down and asked him what he wanted most from Santa that year, and he looked at me with great big eyes and said, `Oh, Santa, don't tell me you forgot. I want an electric train set,"' Mr. Morgan recalled. "I almost fell over."

The father later called Mr. Morgan and said he had been unable to afford a train set for the boy that year, and asked how Mr. Morgan knew the right gift to bring.

"That kid's going to believe in Santa until he's 90 years old," Mr. Morgan said.