Planes — and Santa — make annual flight to Fire Island Lighthouse
It was 1953, and the pilot Edward Snow was on a mission to uphold tradition. Each year at holiday time, Snow would fly over East Coast lighthouses and parachute packages of small gifts to the keepers and their families. That year, he sent candy, wooden toys, newspapers, and a box of spices down to the Fire Island Lighthouse's keeper and his family, said the structure’s current executive director Tony Femminella.
The practice originated decades before Snow's Fire Island flyover, as is documented in news clippings from the 1930s and '40s that dub the pilots “Flying Santa Claus.” And in spirit, it has long outlived Snow’s run.
On Saturday, Femminella orchestrated a reenactment of the 1953 present drop for its 20th anniversary. Dozens of spectators watched from the foot of the lighthouse as Santa — played by Bayport Aerodrome pilot Bill Clifford — circled in a yellow biplane.
“We love history here,” Femminella said. “Whenever we can do some kind of a re-enactment, especially when you’ve got a great partner like these pilots, you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
In 1929, a lost pilot flying in blizzard conditions along the coast of Maine found his way home having seen the flash of a beacon, Femminella said.
“Once he got home, he said to his wife, ‘You know, I really am appreciative of these lighthouse keepers and their families, who guided me home,” Femminella said.
Historically, lighthouses have existed in remote areas and their keepers, who maintained their fog horns and lantern lights, often lived in isolation as they served their communities.
The pilot, William Wincapaw, starting in 1929 would pack a plane full of gifts and parachute them down to lighthouses as a gesture of gratitude. He would do this annually, Femminella said.
A 1939 article published by The New York Times documents one such drop: 75 packages delivered to “a score of lonely lighthouses and Coast Guard stations” between Boston and Portland, Maine. Wincapaw’s son, William Jr., and Snow were along for the ride. Snow took over in the mid-1930s and continued through 1981, Femminella said.
Saturday's re-enactment did not involve a literal present drop, though past events have.
“We’re not allowed to drop parachutes on the National Park property,” Femminella said.
Instead, children line up and Santa gives them gifts, an effort financed by the event’s sponsor, Bethpage Federal Credit Union.
As Santa’s plane continued on past the lighthouse, the man in the red velvet suit magically appeared at the top of the tower to wave to the crowd. With a puff of fog, he then transported himself from the observation deck to the front door to greet guests with his signature “Ho, ho, ho.”
“You know why I didn’t have the sleigh today?” asked Santa, embodied by Hal Murray of North Babylon. “No snow!”
Murray’s wife, Teresa Petorella, played Mrs. Claus.
“My goal in being anywhere is to bring joy to people,” Murray said. “The Christmas spirit should be 365 days a year, and not just one day or one season.”
Husband and wife Steven and Patti Anderson of West Babylon have attended the re-enactment every year for the past two decades, with the exception of the year it was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“One year, maybe about five or 10 years ago . . . there had to be about 10 planes,” Patti Anderson said. “It looked like the attack on the lighthouse. All of a sudden you saw from around the corner, there were like 10 planes. Biplanes, Cessnas and Piper Cubs.”
This year, the pack was smaller; but the passing planes still elicited cheers and squeals.
Lighthouse staff went to great lengths to put on a performance that would appear seamless, but there was no fooling Kylie and Kieran Harper.
“I think there’s more than one Santa,” said Kylie, 8, of Island Park.
Her brother, Kieran, 6, agreed.
“I think there was one down there, and one up there,” he said.