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‘NORAD Tracks Santa’: Bringing him to a home near you

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AFNS) -- Santa will be traveling around the world Dec. 24, delivering presents to all the girls and boys. To help keep tabs on Santa, North American Aerospace Defense Command, including Alaskan NORAD Region (ANR), Continental U.S. NORAD Region and Canadian NORAD Region, will track him across the globe to ensure safe travels.

During the late hours of Christmas Eve and early hours of Christmas Day, U.S. and Canadian service members of ANR will use 15 radar stations to monitor Santa as he traverses the airspace around the northern latitudes of North America, a mission ANR has successfully accomplished for more than 50 years.

"Our role is to ensure Santa's safe and successful mission of delivering toys within approximately 1.3 million square miles of sovereign ANR airspace," said Royal Canadian air force Capt. Jordon Rankin, a 176th Air Defense Squadron air weapons officer.

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

The tradition dates back to Christmas of 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, Colorado.

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

Former 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 former 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 AOC 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.

Every Christmas since, Alaskan NORAD Region service members have worked to identify and track Santa and report it to NORAD.

Volunteers manning the telephone lines take the calls and answer the urgent questions of children across the globe.

"When Santa enters ANR airspace, I recognize the positive radar hits and ask the air surveillance technician to verify those hits are an actual aircraft," said Senior Airman Heather Ann Ornquist, a 176th ADS tracking technician. "Upon verification, the AST passes to the identification technician we have a valid target that requires identification. The ID technician will verify that it is Santa on his pre-arranged flight plan and will make Santa a friendly track."

Alaskan NORAD Region personnel are more than happy to partake in such an important mission.

"This is my first Christmas in Alaska and with the 176th ADS, also known as 'Top Rock,'" Rankin said. "As such, it is my first opportunity to support Santa in such a direct role and ensure his mission success in delivering toys and a merry Christmas to all (the children). I am very happy to be a part of this important mission."

Children in Alaska, North America and all over the world are eagerly anticipating Santa's arrival with his big bag of presents, said Air National Guard Maj. Shane Wallace, a 176th ADS mission crew commander.

"We ensure Santa is cleared-hot to proceed on his way safe and sound," Wallace added. "As long as the dedicated men and women of Top Rock are standing watch, Santa's flight path will be clear."

When not tracking Santa, ANR's mission is to continuously provide warning of a possible aerospace attack within the region and will maintain aerospace control to include peacetime air sovereignty and appropriate aerospace defense measures in response to hostile actions within ANR's area of operation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The Regional Air Operations Center is staffed by active Guard members, Canadian armed forces service members and active-duty augmentees.

The annual mission, known as NORAD Tracks Santa, follows Santa on their website and features a mobile version, a holiday countdown, games, daily activities and more. Children can also follow Santa via Facebook on Twitter using the handle @NoradSanta. Starting at 10:01 p.m., Dec. 24, website visitors can watch Santa make preparations for his flight.

NORAD's "Santa Cams" will stream video on the site as Santa makes his way over various locations.

Then, at 2 a.m., trackers worldwide can speak with a live phone operator to inquire as to Santa's whereabouts by dialing the toll-free number (877) Hi-NORAD ((877) 446-6723) or by sending an e-mail to noradtrackssanta@outlook.com.

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