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Keeping Track Of A Special Visitor

By Staff | Dec 24, 2007

After an episode of foggy weather late last week and the ever-present possibility of snow on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, many children around the area are becoming even more nervous that a certain visitor might not be able to find his way to Palo Alto County this evening. However, the command staff of the North American Air Defense Command is urging all youngsters to sleep well tonight, as the flight plan of a Mr. S. Claus has been filed with the proper authorities and clearances have been granted for a special one-night trip. For over 50 years, NORAD and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) has tracked Santa during his Christmas Eve travels across the North American continent.

This holiday tradition all came about, and continues tonight, all due to a simple mistake some 52 years ago. A store in Colorado Springs, Co. decided to sponsor a telephone line where children could call Santa Claus and tell him their wishes for gifts. But, the telephone was mis-printed.

Hundreds of youngsters began calling the phone number. However, they weren’t getting Santa Claus at the North Pole. Instead, the eager callers were ringing on the phone of the CONAD Commander-in-Chief’s operations “hotline” and were being answered by Director of Operations, Colonel Harry Shoup. Quickly realizing what had happened, Colonel Shoup had his staff check CONAD’s radar data to see if there was any indication of Santa making his way south from the North Pole.

Indeed, there were signs of Santa on the radar screens, so children who called were given an update on Santa’s position. Word spread throughout the region quickly and then across the United States, giving birth to the tradition that continues this very evening, 52 years later. Even though some names have changed in that time, the premise has remained the same.

In 1958, the governments of Canada and the United States joined forces to create a centralized air defense command for the North American continent called the North American Air Defense Command. Canada and the U.S. believed they could better defend North America together as a team, based at a facility built inside Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.

Airmen at Cheyenne Mountain carried out their first Santa tracking in 1958 after inheriting the tradition from CONAD, and will be manning the radar and satellite tracking screens through the night while children sleep, dreaming of Santa’s visit.

So how does the tracking of Santa’s flight take place?

NORAD uses four high-tech systems to track Santa on his trip – starting with the traditional radar systems, of course, as well as high-resolution satellite imagery, Santa Cams and flights by fighter -interceptor aircraft using the time-tested Mark I eyeball system.

The first step of the tracking process is NORAD’s tried and tested radar system called the North Warning System. This powerful radar system has 47 installations located across Canada’s Northern border and in Alaska. The instant radar indicates that Santa has lifted off from his North Pole base of operations, NORAD personnel immediately switch tracking to use the same detection satellites that have the primary mission of providing warning of possible missile launches aimed at North America. These satellites are equipped with infrared sensors, which enable the satellites to detect heat-generating sources.

According to scientists, Rudolph’s nose gives off an infrared signature not all that different from a missile launch. Armed with that information, the detection satellites can detect Rudolph’s brilliant red nose with practically no problem, even through clouds, fog and snowfall.

The third system used to track Santa is known as the Santa Cam. NORAD Santa Cams are high-tech, high-speed digital cameras that are pre-positioned at many places around the world. NORAD only uses these cameras once a year – Christmas Eve.

The last tracking system is the flights of fighter-interceptors. When ordered to intercept the radar target believed to be Santa, the pilots of these aircraft will fly close enough to look at the contact. Canadian NORAD fighter pilots are scrambled in Newfoundland to intercept and welcome Santa to North America. As these flights meet up with the jolly elf and his team of reindeer and sleigh, the pilots fly a tight escort formation Santa’s sleigh across Canada continue the escort and when Santa crosses over the border, United States Air Force pilots take over the escort with pride. The escorting flights of CF 18 Hornets, F15 Eagles and F16 Fighting Falcons are also equipped with Santa Cams to provide video for the NORAD tracking network.

For those who want to watch Santa’s journey on Christmas Eve, real-time updates, video and photos from NORAD’s tracking network can be viewed at the special NORAD Santa Tracking website at www.noradsanta.org

While the men and women of NORAD are pleased to offer this important service to the children of the world on Christmas Eve, their watch over the skies continues day in and day out. NORAD is constantly on alert, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. NORAD’s mission has evolved over the years to meet the aerospace defense needs of Canada and the United States.

NORAD now monitors the airspace within Canada and the United States, too. On this special night, the men and women of NORAD constantly watch the skies to keep the United States and Canada safe so all can enjoy a safe and Merry Christmas.