BILLINGS — With the help of the Blain family, Santa has been visiting rooftops in Billings since 1980. It’s a tradition that many in the city have treasured for years, but all good things must come to an end.
The Blains, who own Billings Flying Service, have said they are retiring the Santa sleigh flight, and the announcement is triggering nostalgia around Billings.
“It became a tradition and a memory that we’ll just always hold very dear,” said Billings resident Sue Furstenberg on Tuesday.
Every Christmas Eve, from the West End to the Heights, families have tilted their eyes to the skies to catch a glimpse of Christmas magic.
“We had great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and children all together that would just grab blankets or whatever it took, and we’d go out on grandma’s deck and watch for them and wait. It was just magical,” Furstenberg said.
She’s among the many grateful to Gary Blain and his family, who have guided Santa over the city for the past 42 years. The family use a small helicopter to help pull Santa’s sleigh.
Sadly, they say, the big guy has gotten too big.
“Santa got fat over the years, and he got heavy, and so the little helicopters wouldn’t haul him anymore. And the big helicopters, it’s just ridiculously expensive to try and do it,” said Gary Blain.
The Blains say there’s more than one reason to hang up the sleigh.
“A year ago, the Santa did blow over. It was damaged, it was bent and really unsalvageable so we’d pretty much have to make a new one,” Blain said.
It’s a bittersweet decision, especially knowing how much those bright lights in the sky have meant to so many and the response they received in return.
“People flashing lights, people bring radios out to me and talk to their kids on the way by, circle their house,” Blain said.
A grateful family and also grateful are so many back down on the ground. Jodie Drange and her two kids made it a part of their Christmas Eve tradition.
“Kept the door cracked, listen for the helicopter coming by, and then as soon as you could hear it, like, the kids, our coats were all sitting by the door. We’d grab our coats and run out and then as soon as he’d fly over, then we’d go in and open all the presents,” said Drange.
It’s a custom that has been passed down to her kids.
“They were like yeah, we remember that, it was so much fun. That became their tradition too,” Drange said.
And Blain will never forget the years of joy that flying Santa over Billings has given him and the rest of the community.
“There was a huge amount of pleasure that came with doing it all those years. If the people enjoyed it, I enjoyed it twice as much,” said Blain.