Santa in the sky
BENNINGTON -- Hundreds of people turned out for the first annual "Santa Drop," where children waited patiently on a cold sunny Saturday to see Santa and three of his elves skydive onto the tarmac.
The free event was organized by staff at the William H. Morse Airport, led by Airport Manager Darrin Lofton, who recently relocated from Alaska and has been in his position for just three weeks.
"We wanted to do something that would create interest in the airport and promote community involvement, as well as do something nice for the kids," said Lofton, who is also the owner of New England AirMotive, which services aircraft and operates out of the Bennington Airport location.
Volunteers from the Bennington Rural Fire Department were on hand to help with safety concerns and showed many interested children the firetrucks they had parked on the runway, as well as ran interference when Santa and his elves were preparing for takeoff.
BRFD Lt. Steven Waters said he was happy to be there to lend a hand, and was surprised at the number of families who attended.
"They asked us to participate and it's a good idea to make sure everything goes smoothly and everyone is safe," he said, while holding Chief Shawn Gardner's smiling baby Brayden, dressed as a bear.
Heidi Gardner found out about the event at the last minute, and was excited to take children Haley Harwood, 4, and Nicholas Gardner, 5.
"We almost missed it," said Gardner, noting the children weren't sure what to expect. "I said, ‘Let's go see Santa!'"
Although it was "Santa's" first time having his picture taken with children, it was not his first time jumping out of an airplane.
A.J. Bowen, of New Haven, estimated he has sky-dived or "jumped," between 2,500 and 5,000 times since taking up the hobby more than ten years ago.
While Bowen did have an authentic beard, it was temporarily the wrong color, before he corrected the situation to include a white beard, red suit and a red-pointed hat -- worn over a safety helmet.
His "elves" followed closely with impressive jump-records, including Katie Moran, Dan DeFilipps and "Flyin' Ryan" Scutt.
Scutt has more than 600 jumps logged, and is also the new production coordinator for CAT-TV. He jumped with two GoPro cameras, and plans to edit some of the footage to be aired at a later date.
"I've got one on my helmet and one on my foot," Scutt laughed, while dressing up in elf-attire in the airport's small hangar.
Although cold, the day was clear and organizers were happy that the expected 2 - 5 inches of snow did not fall on Friday evening.
"This is pretty late in the year to be jumping," said DeFilipps. "Most experienced jumpers would probably think we're crazy right now."
Pilot Carson Deyo did not reveal himself to be an elf, but nonetheless donned a parachute in case of emergency. The owner of the plane was Ole Thomsen.
With crowds of children waiting, separated from the secret-happenings at the far end of the runway, the crew took off for an altitude of 4,000 feet.
After landing safely in front of what organizers estimated to be hundreds of families, Santa and the elves took photos with children in front of the plane while still wearing their colorful parachutes.
Ron James, a member of Bennington's sport flying club Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA chapter 1375) was there to help and was also having his dual-control Piper Cherokee aircraft serviced.
For families with children who may be interested in learning how to fly, James is in the planning stage of organizing a "young eagles" introductory flight course to take off in the spring.
"The premise of the idea is to show kids that they can do anything they want in life, if they work toward it," said James, who started flying in the 1960s as a member of the military.
"If you want to learn something that you think you can't do you have to realize that it is possible, and start early," he said.
For children ages 12 and older who want to learn how to fly and perhaps help pilot an aircraft, contact Barb Houle, secretary of the Bennington County 4-H foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcoming events to be held at the William H. Morse Airport include a "French Toast Fly-In," on Jan. 18 from 10 a.m. - noon, and opportunities for local artists to hang their works in the pilots lounge, for sale or for display.
Contact Khynna at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @khynnakat.
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