By Beth Clark • December 24, 2018
Ho ho ho...where did Santa go? One night a year on Christmas Eve, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) can tell you as it tracks Santa with live updates on his progress as he makes his way around the world. They also answer almost 150,000 calls to the North Pole, and they know if you're being naughty or nice.
NORAD stands for 'North American Aerospace Defense Command' and is exactly that: The US Air Force-centric organization based in Colorado that monitors, controls, and defends North American airspace in partnership with the Royal Canadian Air Force and collaboration with homeland defense, security, and law enforcement. NORAD exists thanks to a 60-year-old agreement between the two nations made in December 1958 and is jointly commanded by a 4-star general from each country. Mexico's National Defense Forces and the Mexican Air Force also participate, but in a cooperative capacity instead of a command one.
If it flies in, over, or near North American airspace, NORAD tracks it, from two-seaters to spaceships. (And sleighs!) If NORAD detects something either isn't flying the way it should be or is flying where it shouldn't be, it takes control of the situation and deters any potential threat by intercepting, shadowing, escorting, diverting, directing landings, and/or using force that can include destroying airborne objects. Obviously, being on NORAD's 'nice list' is preferable.
During a 2010 presidential visit to Seattle, NORAD deployed two F-15s in response to a seaplane that unknowingly flew into restricted air space on its way back from a weekend in eastern Washington. Portland to Seattle is a one-hour flight…the fighter jets made it in 10 minutes. (That's like, 870 mph.) For that situation, NORAD deemed a supersonic response time necessary, but for Seattle/western Washington residents, the sonic booms that followed sounded like bombs and felt like an earthquake as they shook high-rises, rattled windows, shattered things on walls and shelves, and triggered car alarms. (911 callers jammed the system in one county, and servers crashed from being overloaded by traffic at one news agency.)
NORAD is pretty savvy on the tech front though (duh), and issued a statement on their Facebook page (they also have one just for tracking Santa) within minutes that said: "SONIC BOOMS over Seattle: NORAD responded to an aircraft violating a VIP Temporary Flight Restricted Area near Seattle at approximately 1:35 PDT. F15s from the 142nd Fighter Wing, Oregon Air National Guard in Portland, were scrambled to intercept the aircraft and in the process, the F15s went super-sonic near the Seattle Area."
As with many of the coolest things in history, NORAD's Santa tradition started completely by accident. Or fate. When a local Sears store ran a Colorado Springs newspaper ad for kids in 1955 with a "Santa hotline" they could call to talk with the big guy himself, there was a misprint in the phone number. Instead of the North Pole hotline ringing, the CONAD (Continental Air Defense Command...NORAD's predecessor) Commander-in-Chief's operations desk phone rang. The irony was that the ad said, "Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct and be sure and dial the correct number." Which they did, but it was the correct wrong number...what are the odds, right?
The story of what happened when the very first child called that wrong number varies, but the gist is that more calls came and CONAD ended up issuing a press release stating that it was tracking Santa's sleigh and that CONAD Army, Navy, and Marine Air Forces would guard Santa and his reindeer against possible attack from those who didn't believe in Christmas.
The following year, the AP and other press organizations wanted to know whether CONAD would be tracking Santa again, and luckily for millions of kids and grownups over the following six decades, Col. Shoup, who had kids of his own, decided to say yes. In possibly the most brilliant PR move ever, the tradition was born.
When NORAD was formed in 1958, the tradition continued, and it's grown into a global phenomenon that's a large, ultra-high-tech volunteer effort. It's almost entirely run by volunteers and funded by corporate donations, including the servers, web design, video creation, tracking map, phone services, and app development (because yes, there's an app for that) so the program uses very minimal government funds.
Pre-Christmas fun like reindeer games, videos (i.e. Santa goes to NORAD for 'flight training' before the big day), music, and North Pole trivia began December 1st and every Christmas Eve, 1500+ volunteers staff phones and computers to answer calls and e-mails to Santa from kids and grownups all over the world. Last year, volunteers answered 140,000 calls and nine million unique users from 200 countries visited the website…an impressive amount of Christmas spirit.
Today, NORAD tracks Santa's sleigh with powerful radars, complex satellite systems, and supersonic jets as he makes his way around the world, posting live updates in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, and Chinese on the 'NORAD Tracks Santa' website (it also tells kids when it's time to go to bed.), and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
For any doubters, NORAD has this to say: "Based on historical data and 60 years of NORAD tracking information, we believe that Santa Claus is alive and well in the hearts of children throughout the world. Santa keeps a long list of children who have been good throughout the year. His list grows longer each year due to the world's increasing population. Santa would never rush the important job of distributing presents to children and spreading holiday cheer to everyone, so the only logical conclusion is that Santa functions within a different time-space continuum than the rest of us. Santa is a true mystery to us all!"
NORAD takes the job they're tasked with so seriously that not even Santa gets a free pass when he delivers his gifts on Christmas. #NORADTracksSanta
Visit NORAD Tracks Santa: www.noradsanta.org
Call Santa: 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723)
Email Santa: firstname.lastname@example.org