Bundled in colorful coats, mittens, and caps, about 40 children braved the cold Dec. 12 on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay near mainland Virginia to greet Santa Claus. They jumped and waved excitedly as Santa rolled up to the tarmac on Tangier Island Airport Tangier Island Airport in AOPA’s Cessna Caravan, escorted by nearly 30 other general aviation aircraft. The entourage, ranging from a Tecnam light sport aircraft to a Mooney, also delivered holly to the islanders to decorate their houses as part of the annual Tangier Holly Run.
Pilots have been participating in the Holly Run since 1968 when Edward H. Nabb, based at Cambridge-Dorchester Airport, delivered the first few bags of holly to two churches, Swain Memorial Methodist and New Testament, on the island for them to decorate for Christmas. After that, the act of generosity grew.
“He, I think, just fell in love with the island and the people,” Virginia Marshall, who served as the island’s greeter for the first holly run, said of Nabb.
At the peak, about 40 aircraft delivered holly to the island. Edward Nabb Jr. continued the tradition after his father died seven years ago, and the event has taken place every year except 2008 when the airport was being resurfaced.
Nabb’s cousin, Carlton Nabb, has cut the holly each year for nearly four decades and bagged it for the islanders to use to decorate their houses, yards, and golf carts. Even though Carlton won’t fly to the island as part of the holly run, he helps bring the holly to Cambridge-Dorchester Airport to be loaded on aircraft because he knows how important the holly is to the islanders.
“It means life, because we don’t have too many [holly] trees here,” Marshall said of the fresh holly. “We all appreciate the holly. When we first started, we’d decorate the [church] altar with the holly. Now people decorate their home or yard.”
Nabb organizes the event with the precision of an elf directing mission control at the North Pole. Pilots begin arriving at Cambridge-Dorchester Airport early in the morning for a bite of breakfast at Kay’s Restaurant before gathering in the terminal lounge for a briefing from Nabb. Land to the north, make right traffic, and steer clear of the restricted areas. Slower aircraft get a head start, followed by progressively higher-performance aircraft.
“This is true giving,” Nabb reminded the pilots after the briefing.
Soon, the pilots were off, grabbing black Hefty stretch trash bags of holly to load in their aircraft.
“Santa’s going down in style,” one pilot said as he walked passed the Caravan toting two bags of holly for his aircraft. The 3,000-pound useful load of the Caravan came in handy, as Santa brought three giant red bags stuffed with dolls, toy trucks, crayons, coloring books, batteries, and more that he had paid for himself. “Overload the plane,” Santa said, letting out a joyful “ho, ho, ho” as he continued to stuff the Caravan. The Caravan also packed in seven bags of holly and eight passengers (in place of the reindeer).
As the conga line of GA aircraft departed Cambridge for Tangier, Patuxent controllers asked, “What’s going on at Tangier?” The remote island, with only 600 residents, rarely receives a group this large flying in at once. Upon learning of the event and Santa’s presence, the radio frequency filled with wishes for a merry Christmas and a safe flight.
Four-year-old Johnathan and his father Rob Crane met Santa at Cambridge-Dorchester Airport to participate in the holly run, but Johnathan wasn’t quite sure why the jolly man wasn’t flying in a sleigh.
“He was surprised that we were bringing Santa in an airplane,” said Crane, who was participating in the Holly Run for the first time. “We told him there was no snow, so he couldn’t use the sleigh.”
Santa’s transportation didn’t bother Tangier resident Lukas Thomas. While many children frolicked behind the golf cart carrying Santa to the Methodist church on the island, Thomas stayed behind to check out his ride.
“He likes the planes better than Santa,” Beth Thomas explained as she helped he grandson climb onboard the Caravan for a look.
Andrea Crockett with her daughter, Nikki.
In the small Sunday school rooms on the first floor of the church, Santa handed out gifts to the children while parents and proud pilots observed from the sidelines.
“It gets all the children together, and they enjoy each other’s company,” said Jenny Dise, who has been bringing her daughter Cassie to meet Santa since she was born four years ago. “And they enjoy visiting with Santa.”
For Andrea Crockett, seeing Santa with a real beard is part of the appeal. Crockett and her daughter Nikki have been coming to the event for four years, but Crockett remembers Santa flying in when she was a teenager.
Santa wasn’t the only one bearing gifts for the children. Ted Dykes, whose son flew him to Tangier in a Tecnam Sierra, brought 120 ski hats.
“It’s Christmas, this is what pilots do,” said Helen Woods, who helped Nabb organize this year’s event and will coordinate next year’s holly run with pilots based at Bay Bridge Airport. “We go out and help people.”
The joy of giving and the draw of the island keep pilots coming back year after year.
“Most years I just kind of get depressed around Christmas,” Nabb said of his involvement in the holly run, “but this kind of helped get the spirit of giving.”