Children of all ages dart back and forth on the lawns surrounding the historic Warwick Lighthouse, in Rhode Island on a crisp mid-December morning. A soccer ball is kicked, chased down, and kicked again. Another group of children stand at the bottom of the sloped lawn, leaning against a fence, looking out to sea in anticipation. Some have experienced this before and know what to look and listen for. For others this is the first time.
In the distance a steady whop-whop-whop arises. The sound growing louder as a small helicopter comes into view. It circles the lighthouse once, low enough for the crowd to catch a quick glimpse of the large red figure in the passenger seat. Then with a flurry, the helicopter sets down in an open space next to the old lighthouse. With his curly white beard jostling in the rotor wash and his ho-ho-hos hardly audible, Santa climbs down from his helicopter sleigh.
With his green bag of presents in hand, Santa begins greeting all of the Coast Guard families who have come to see him.
For members of the Coast Guard's Civil Engineering Unit Providence, the holiday event is a time for families to come together to share in the nearly 90-year-old tradition of the flying Santa.
"It's a great tradition," said Lt. Kyle Ensley, a facility asset manager at CEU Providence and an attendee with his family for the third straight year. "The fact that Santa flies in blows the kids away."
Santa takes time to talk to each child who attends, giving him or her a gift, and that means a great deal to everyone, said Ensley.
It is clear, however, the Flying Santa event does much more than deliver remote control cars and teddy bears.
"It's a great opportunity for military families to come together," said Ensley. "With families moving every three to four years, they don't always have a support network around them."
CEU Providence's morale committee holds events throughout the year with the hope of sparking supportive relationships among the Coast Guard families.
"We do a half dozen to a dozen events like this each year," said Ensley. "The morale committee works really hard to plan these events. We really try to bring families together to create camaraderie."
Friends of Flying Santa is an ideal event for CEU Providence's morale committee.
"It's a nonprofit organization," said Lt. Josh Smolowitz, a member of CEU Providence who helped coordinate the event at Warwick Lighthouse. "They raise money like any nonprofit, and then this time of year they get organizations that have helicopters or individuals with helicopters to donate their time and flight hours to deliver Santa Claus to lighthouses up and down the New England coastline."
The event is no cost for the Coast Guard, said Ensley. All of the expenses, including the gifts, are covered by the nonprofit organization Friends of Flying Santa.
Friends of Flying Santa did not always sponsor the event.
According to Friends of Flying Santa, Captain William Wincapaw first started the tradition in 1929. Wincapaw was a pilot who flew in the Penobscot Bay area and frequently relied on the lighthouses as a means to navigate. As a sign of thanks Wincapaw dropped gifts to the isolated lighthouse keepers and their families one Christmas. The gesture was so appreciated by the lighthouse keepers he decided to make it a yearly tradition.
Today, Friends of Flying Santa carries out the same goodwill begun by Wincapaw.
"It's not the gifts, but the whole package that makes it a special day," said Ensley.
After meeting with all the children, Santa bid his farewell and engaged his rotor blades. With a wave to all below, the helicopter lifted off the ground. With a rush of wind, he was off, disappearing into the horizon, but sure to be seen again next year.