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'Starr' helps NORAD track Santa

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AFPN) -- A “Starr” in the east will help guide North American Aerospace Defense Command’s Santa-tracking tradition Dec. 24. The Starr is none other than former Beatle, Ringo Starr, who will be NORAD’S honorary Santa tracker for Christmas 2003.

“Santa and I are personal friends,” Starr said from his home in England. “He’s asked me to do this special job with this incredible new SantaCam, and I’ll be tracking him as he comes over Great Britain.”

NORAD technicians upgraded the omnidirectional high-speed digital SantaCam stationed in Great Britain and have moved it from Stonehenge to a top-secret hideaway near Starr’s home.

“We took it offline for awhile and upgraded it, and gave it some new capabilities,” said Maj. Doug Martin, NORAD Santa-tracking operations chief. “We then began to wonder who we could ask to operate it this year.

“We discussed it with Santa, and his first idea was Ringo Starr,” Martin said. “When we called Ringo, Santa had already phoned, and he said ‘Yes’ immediately. We were just thrilled.”

“Ringo recently received Santa-tracking techniques from NORAD technicians and has become an expert in the use of the SantaCam,” said Canadian Maj. Gen. Angus Watt, director of operations for NORAD. “We hope he’ll capture images of Father Christmas somewhere in Great Britain this year.”

“He’ll be looking all over Great Britain, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England,” Martin said. “We expect images to come in around 4 p.m. (MST) Christmas Eve. That’s around 11 (p.m.) England time.”

“Children will see amazing things,” Starr said. “I’m privileged to be one of the Santa trackers.”

The “Santa-tracking” tradition started in 1955 by pure accident after a Colorado Springs newspaper ran an advertisement for a department store “Santa Hotline.” The ad included a special phone number, which turned out to be the operations hotline to NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command. When callers asked to speak to Santa, the servicemembers on duty were surprised to hear 6-year-old children on the hotline.

The senior officer on duty at the time, Col. Harry Shoup, received the first Santa call. Realizing what had happened, Shoup told the callers he was helping Santa and said his radar screens showed Santa heading south from the North Pole.

His staff quickly jumped in to help handle the influx of calls. A picture of Santa and his reindeer was added to the map of North America, and the tradition was underway.

Local media heard of the calls and reported the story locally. The next year, calls came flooding in to Continental Air Defense Command from children who wanted to know where Santa was. A tradition was born -- a tradition NORAD assumed in 1957. Since then, the program has expanded gradually over the years, hitting the Internet in 1997.

In 2001, NORAD’s Santa-tracking mission was nearly forgotten in the wake of the events of Sept. 11, Martin said. It was not until early December that anyone had been able to give the annual tradition any thought. The operations center was readied and volunteers stood by the phones.

That night, Martin said, “we received a call from a New York City firefighter who was feeling very emotional, because he was with his children on Christmas Eve. This particular person had lost 43 friends in the terrorist attacks.

“We were all touched by this firefighter’s loss, but it also gave us the realization that we were doing the right thing by making sure that kids around the world knew that NORAD is still tracking Santa,” he said.

NORAD’s Santa-tracking mission will also be featured on television during a special biography program about Santa on Dec. 18 on A&E Biography.

Children worldwide can phone NORAD’s operations center beginning at 7 a.m. MST on Christmas Eve at (719) 474-2111, or toll free outside the Colorado Springs area at (877) Hi-NORAD. Children can also visit the “NORAD Tracks Santa” Web site at www.noradsanta.org to view reports on Santa’s progress and to see Starr’s SantaCam images.

As an added attraction this year, visitors to NORAD’s Santa-tracking Web site will hear some of Starr’s Christmas music, including “I Wanna Be Santa Claus.”

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