Alaska Airmen keep Santa in sight

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. John Gordinier
  • Alaskan NORAD Region Public Affairs
Officials with the North American Aerospace Defense Command will conduct a special mission on Dec. 24 -- tracking Santa across the globe to ensure Santa experiences safe travels during his yuletide journey.

U.S. and Canadian service members of the Alaskan NORAD Region utilize 15 radar stations to monitor Santa as he traverses the airspace around the northern latitudes of North America. It's a mission ANR has successfully accomplished for 50 years.

"We ensure Santa's flight is successful and safe within the 1.3 million square miles of Alaska airspace he will be traveling," said Tech. Sgt. Christopher Cordiner, a 176th Air Defense Squadron air surveillance technician with the Alaska Air National Guard.

"This is a very important mission and making sure all goes safely as planned is imperative," Cordiner said. "We only get a few distinguished VIPs of this caliber every year. The bottom line is making sure his flight goes as planned delivering toys to all the good children."

Like other regions within NORAD, aircraft are on standby at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson here to intercept and fly alongside Santa also known as "Big Red One" and his reindeer to assist in any way.

The tradition of NORAD tracking Santa dates back to Christmas Eve of 1955.  According to the website, the program began December 24, 1955, when an incorrect phone number encouraging children to call Santa on Christmas was printed in a local Sears Roebuck and Co. newspaper advertisement.

Instead of Santa, the number actually dialed the Air Operations Center at Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor organization, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The phone that rang that night was the top-secret crisis phone - and a call on that line meant serious trouble.

Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, the commander on duty that night, was not amused, he said in a 2005 interview.

He answered with a crisp "Yes, sir?" expecting to hear Air Force Gen. Earle Partridge, the NORAD commander, giving an order.

Instead, a little boy told him what he wanted for Christmas.

Shoup was suddenly even less amused, and started looking around the room for whichever Airman was on the phone and trying to stifle a grin.

"I thought, 'Someone's playing a joke, and I don't stand for that,'" Shoup said in the interview. "If I see who's laughing out there, I'm going to nail him good."

But no one was laughing. The little boy on the other end of the line sensed something was amiss.

"You're not Santa," Shoup recalled him saying.

"Oh-ho-ho, yes I am," Shoup responded.

Soon, the phone was ringing constantly and Shoup pulled some Airmen aside and told them to answer the calls and "Just pretend you're Santa."

Instead of having Sears pull the ad, Shoup offered the kids something else, Airmen would check the radar for Santa's official location as he made his journey across the globe.

Each year since, NORAD has dutifully reported Santa's location on Dec. 24 to millions of children and families across the globe who inquire as to his whereabouts.

Shoup passed away in 2009 at the age of 92, but his spur-of-the-moment decision to be Santa lives on.

The Airmen who play a part in that mission said they are honored to be part of the holiday tradition.

"This is my first Christmas with the unit and my first time being able to support Santa in such a direct role and ensuring his mission success," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Watkins, a 176th ADS tracking technician. "I am happy to be a part of this very important mission and I wish Santa a safe flight and Godspeed."

When not tracking Santa, the ANR mission is to continuously provide warning of an aerospace attack within the region.

ANR maintains aerospace control, peacetime air sovereignty and appropriate aerospace defense measures in response to hostile actions.

The Regional Air Operations Center component of ANR is composed of all active Guard members, Canadian armed forces service members, and active-duty augmentees.

Since its early days, the Santa mission has also gone more high-tech than phones these days. Children of all ages interested in tracking Santa can do so at There is also the NORAD Tracks Santa Facebook page at, or follow Santa's progress on Twitter @NoradSanta.