Dec. 24, Santa will be traveling around the world, delivering presents to all the girls and boys. To help keep tabs on Santa, North American Aerospace Defense Command, including Alaska, 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 about 1.3 million square miles of sovereign ANR airspace,” said Royal Canadian Air Force Capt. Jordon Rankin, 176th Air Defense Squadron air weapons officer.
Like other regions within NORAD, aircraft are on stand-by at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, 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 was printed in a local Sears Roebuck and Co. newspaper ad.
Instead of Santa, the number actually dialed the Air Operations Center at Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD’s predecessor, in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The phone that rang that night was the top-secret crisis phone; 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 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 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 track Santa.
“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, 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.”
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, www.noradsanta.org, with games, activities and more. Starting at 10:01 p.m. Dec. 24, visitors can watch Santa make preparations for his flight.“Santa Cams” will stream video as Santa makes his way over various locations.
Then, at 2 a.m., trackers worldwide can speak with a live operator to ask Santa’s whereabouts by calling (877) Hi-NORAD (446-6723).