view counter

Giving the Reindeer a Break

Volunteers take flight each year so that isolated Tangier Island has a green Christmas

For more than 40 years, local pilots and other volunteers have helped deliver holly — and more recently Santa — to Tangier Island.

The miracle of flight has long been Santa’s secret to guaranteed overnight delivery, but sometimes the reindeer need a break. During the pre-Christmas rush they’re in demand everywhere, including some pretty remote locales. So how does the big guy make a day trip to a place like Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, a place where even the closest landlubbers depend on ferries to make the 12-mile crossing?
    The answer is lots of planning and mechanical flying reindeer. On Piper, on Cirrus, on Cessna, on Grumman, load up the holly ’cause Santa’s a-comin’ — on an airplane nicknamed Rudolph 1.

Standing in for Reindeer and Santa

    Since 1967 — less two years missed due to bad weather — local pilots have been bringing Christmas greens to shrub-challenged Tangier Islanders in a flight that’s become aviation’s social affair of the season, the Holly Run. This year’s December 3 convoy was the largest ever with 45 planes, according to organizer Helen Woods, who is chief flight instructor of Chesapeake Sport Pilot at the Bay Bridge Airport and whose school supplied some 15 volunteers to pull the run off.
    Pilot instructors flipped pancakes alongside a mechanic grilling sausages, sometimes with a blowtorch, to feed 111 fliers and crew. Students and spouses orchestrated the methodical take-off, landing and parking of the holly-laden caravan. Student pilot Richard Jenkins offered up the bounty of his Pasadena yard. Stephanie Gunzel, another student, and husband Charles, of northern Virginia, harvested and bagged the prickly greenery.

photo by Karen Helfert

This year’s Holly Run was the largest ever, with 45 planes, according to organizer Helen Woods.

    Some supporters came from even farther away. The Polish consul Michal Sikorski and his wife, Krystyna, plus two compatriots, came for the sake of small communities. If I could choose a place to live in the U.S.,” said the consul, “this place would be at the top of my list.”
    Even the U.S. Navy got in on the act, issuing mass clearance for the procession to proceed through restricted air space over Bloodsworth Island, the site of frequent munitions testing, at altitudes between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. Any lower and pilots would infringe on air space reserved for migratory birds. Any higher and they could encounter F-16s. Most pilots weren’t taking any chances, though, and plotted alternate courses, just in case they needed to find another path home when planes returned at their leisure, rather than en masse.

    “You don’t want to fly through without clearance,” said pilot David Sussman. “If you try to sneak through, they’ll figure out where you’re going and meet you, and maybe take away your license.”
    The same radiomen who ushered the flight over also provided escort radio service on the return trip.


    Santa, aka Jim Schultz of Ocean City, joined seven years ago as a last-minute substitute. His love for children, roughly 50 this year at Tangier’s Community Center, drives him to spend his own money on gifts for each child, each year.

The Plane Knows the Way

    Santa is a relatively new addition to the Holly Run. For decades there were just the greens, and in the early years just one plane delivered them. Ed Nabb, a lawyer from Cambridge, gathered the holly from his family farm on the Eastern Shore and flew it to Tangier in a 1946 ER Coupe (pronounced air coop), which his sons continue to pilot. Ed Jr., who took over the family law practice, flew it for 25 years before passing the keys to his younger brother Drew.

photo by Jane C. Elkin

Ed Nabb Jr. and Drew Napp both followed in their father's flight pattern for the Holly Run

    The ER Coupe is special for many reasons, not least of all its reputation as an anomaly. A post-war, light sport plane designed for ordinary fliers, it’s described as “the Volkswagon of the skies, sold through Macy’s and the Sears Roebuck catalog,” according to Drew. Its controls resemble those of a car rather than a plane, with a steering wheel and foot brake rather than hand brakes and floor-mounted rudder pedals used by modern aviators.
    As an infant, Drew was strapped in back for the Holly Run. As a child, he thought it “a noisy, smelly plane” and was glad to see it mothballed when his father moved up to a Piper Cherokee.
    But, he says, “Dad couldn’t part with it, so he plastic-wrapped it like a boat and stored it till he could fix it.” When Drew earned his pilot’s license, the examiner wouldn’t allow him to fly it for his test. But the ER Coupe, with its mis-matched wings and flimsy seats, migrated back for this event all the way from Charlotte, North Carolina, where Drew works as an engineer.
    The plane, like the son, feels the call to come home for the holidays because some obligations never wear out.

Flight student Jane Elkin piloted with her instructor in the back seat on her maiden Holly Run.