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Authorities Gearing Up For Special Visitor

By Staff | Dec 23, 2010

With the official arrival of winter on Tuesday and the forecast of snow for Christmas weekend, many area youth have been checking into the upcoming visit by a special guest to Palo Alto County Friday night.

However, local law enforcement agencies, along with the command staff of the North American Air Defense Command are assuring all youngsters to sleep well on Christmas Eve, as an official flight plan filed by a Mr. S. Claus has been filed with the Federal Aviation Administration and clearances have been granted for a special one-night trip, from Dec. 24 to Dec. 25.

For nearly 60 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 due to a simple mistake 56 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 numbered was mis-printed with an incorrect digit. Hundreds of youngsters began calling the phone number, but 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.

To the surprise of the veteran airmen, the CONAD radar was picking up signs of Santa, so children who called were given an update on Santa’s position.

Even though some names have changed in that time, the premise of the exercise 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, 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 across North America sleep, dreaming of Santa’s visit.

So how does the tracking of Santa’s flight actually 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.

It has been determined that Rudolph’s nose gives off an infrared signature not all that different from a missile launch. Knowing this, the detection satellites detect Rudolph’s brilliant red nose with 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