COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — For 60 years, North American Aerospace Defense Command, otherwise known as NORAD, and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) have tracked Santa’s flight.
The tradition began in 1955 after a Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement misprinted the telephone number for children to call Santa. Instead of reaching Santa, the phone number put children through to the CONAD commander in chief’s operations “hotline.” The director of operations at the time, Col. Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Children who called were given updates on his location and a tradition was born.
In 1958, the governments of Canada and the United States created a bi-national air defense command for North America called the North American Aerospace Defense Command, also known as NORAD, which then took on the tradition of tracking Santa.
Since that time, NORAD employees, family and friends have volunteered their time to personally respond to phone calls and emails from children all around the world. In addition, NORAD now tracks Santa using the internet. Millions of people who want to know Santa’s whereabouts now visit the NORAD Tracks Santa website.
Finally, media from all over the world rely on NORAD as a trusted source to provide updates on Santa’s journey.
HOW NORAD TRACKS SANTA
It all starts with the NORAD radar system called the North Warning System. This powerful radar system has 47 installations strung across Canada’s north and Alaska. NORAD makes a point of checking the radar closely for indications of Santa Claus leaving the North Pole every holiday season. The moment the radar tells them that Santa has lifted off, they begin to use the same satellites they use to provide air warning of possible missile launches aimed at North America.
These satellites are located in a geosynchronous orbit — always fixed over the same spots — at 22,300 miles above the Earth. The satellites are equipped with infrared sensors, meaning they can see heat. When a rocket or missile is launched, a tremendous amount of heat is produced — enough for the satellites to see them. Rudolph’s nose gives off an infrared signature similar to that of a missile launch. The satellites detect Rudolph’s bright red nose with no problem.
The third system NORAD uses is the SantaCam. The organization began using the SantaCam in 1998, the same year they put the Santa Tracking program on the internet. NORAD SantaCams are ultra-cool, high-tech, high-speed digital cameras that are pre-positioned at many places around the world. NORAD uses these cameras only once a year — on Dec. 24.
They turn the cameras on about an hour before Santa enters a country and then switch them off after capturing images of him and the reindeer. NORAD employees immediately upload the images onto their website for people around the world to see. SantaCams produce both video and still images.
The last system used is the NORAD jet fighter. Canadian NORAD fighter pilots, flying the CF-18, take off out of Newfoundland and welcome Santa to North America. Then, at numerous locations in Canada, other CF-18 fighter pilots escort Santa.
While in the United States, American NORAD fighter pilots flying F-15, F16 or F-22 jets get to experience the thrill of flying with Santa and the famous reindeer — Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph.
Even though Santa flies faster than any jet fighter (Santa actually slows down for the pilots to escort him), all of these systems together provide NORAD with a reliable and continuous picture of his whereabouts.
Santa usually starts at the international date line in the Pacific Ocean and travels west. So, historically, Santa visits the South Pacific first, then New Zealand and Australia. After that, he shoots up to Japan, over to Asia, across to Africa, then onto Western Europe, Canada, the United States, Mexico and Central and South America.
Keep in mind, Santa’s route can be affected by weather, so it can be unpredictable from year to year. NORAD coordinates with Santa’s Elf Launch staff to confirm his launch time, but from that point on, Santa calls the shots.