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Tracking Santa

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- The North American Aerospace Command is responsible for tracking every flight over the U.S. and Canada. They’re so serious about their job that not even Santa gets a free pass when he delivers his gifts on Christmas. Find out how they accomplish this amazing feat.

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Related links:
- Official NORAD Santa Tracker

Santa travels at the speed of starlight, and NORAD is there

It’s a heartwarming Christmas classic (or maybe a Hollywood blockbuster); the story goes like this: A well-meaning big business botches its newspaper ad for their Christmas call-in to Santa. The bungled marketing campaign goes unnoticed until a child tries to access the Santa line and gets the commander-in-chief’s hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, and the director of operations answers the phone. The quick-thinking director, Col. Harry Shoup, a Christmas-spirited officer, commands his staff to check the radar for the whereabouts of Santa and his sleighful of toys. With the answer, a Christmas tradition is born.

It all began 63 years ago when a Sears Roebuck and Company store near Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, got the idea to promote their Toyland as it never had before.

“Hey, Kiddies!” the ad began next to a headshot of Santa. “Call me direct…. Just dial….” Unfortunately, that wasn’t Santa’s phone number. It went directly to the commander-in-chief’s operations hotline at CONAD, Continental Air Defense Command, the forerunner of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. NORAD is a bi-national U.S. and Canadian organization charged with, among other responsibilities, the monitoring of man-made articles in space.

Shoup believed that he saw an opportunity in this child’s call and had his staff check the radar, note where Santa was, and the tradition of giving children updates on Santa’s progress began. Radar, satellites, Santacams and accompanying jet fighters (F-16s, F-15s, F-22s and CF18s) track Santa’s progress as he travels from the North Pole. In fact, it’s such a worldwide tradition, that updates are given in eight languages. Annually, more than 1,250 volunteers in the NORAD Tracks Santa call center will each serve two-hour shifts. They will be posting to social media, tweeting, answering the phones, and responding to emails. The call center is open for 24 hours beginning at 5 a.m. EST Dec. 24.

Santa travels with the speed of starlight, and his ability to circumnavigate the globe is greatly enhanced by a “fighter jet mission” in North America. Santa’s preparations and journey will be followed in real time starting Christmas Eve on a special holiday website. It’s up and running with a holiday countdown clock, games, movies, daily activities, and music. Children of all ages can dial the toll-free number, 1-877-446-6723, to get a moment-by-moment update.

NORAD has the experience and the state-of-the-art technology to accurately track Santa, but only a very minimal amount of federal funding from both the U.S. and Canada is used. In addition to the countless volunteer man-hours, almost all of the funding for the NORAD Tracks Santa program comes from over 60 corporate sponsors.

True story. You gotta believe!

By Martha J. Lockwood, APR Chief, Air Force Information Products

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