Santa Gearing Up to Travel at Speed of Starlight with NORAD's Help

Santa, shown here at Buckley Air Force Base, has been flying practice runs in Colorado, using simulators and even getting into a jet for test runs, NORAD said. Courtesy photo
Santa, shown here at Buckley Air Force Base, has been flying practice runs in Colorado, using simulators and even getting into a jet for test runs, NORAD said. Courtesy photo

Santa Claus is a few days from making his trek -- the longest and most grueling trip by airborne sleigh in the history of the world -- and Rudolph (plus Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen) aren't the only ones who will have his back up there.

U.S. military satellites and sensors will watch Santa's every move as he travels the globe this Christmas, and officials at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) will monitor the flight and provide fighter jet escorts -- including F-15 Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-22 Raptors and even Canadian CF-18s -- if the need should arise over North America.

"NORAD is well-known for its ability to track Santa," said Air Force Gen. Terrence  O'Shaughnessy, NORAD's commander.

"And if we can track Santa, you can imagine what else we can track," he added in a recent video release.

For the last two weeks, Santa -- who normally travels at the speed of "starlight," officials said -- has been flying practice runs in Colorado with the help of his elves and NORAD's command-and-control officers. Santa has been using simulators and has even gotten into a jet for the test runs, giving the reindeer some rest before the big ride.

Air Force operators, along with the elves, have been monitoring weather conditions, flight patterns, traffic, altitude and speed -- all to help Santa make gains on his trip and avoid potential emergencies.

"NORAD's integrated ground & space systems are so powerful, they can even detect the red glow from Rudolph's nose and the metal that makes up Santa's sleigh!" according to the official NORAD Santa Tracker Twitter account.

NORAD marked its 60th anniversary this year. The command has tracked Santa "every single one of those years," according to the video.

It began 63 years ago, when a Sears, Roebuck and Company store near Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, advertised a direct number for Santa Claus, giving children the chance to say hello or wish him well on his journey.

"Hey, Kiddies!" the ad began, next to a headshot of Santa, according to the Air Force. "Call me direct. ... Just dial ..."

But the number was incorrectly printed, and instead, it went directly to the commander-in-chief's operations hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), predecessor of NORAD.

Col. Harry Shoup, the commander at the time, thought it was a joke. It was 1955, during the Cold War, and only top brass at the Pentagon had the number, Shoup's children recalled in an interview with NPR. Shoup soon realized as more calls came in -- even from a local radio station -- that he couldn't simply hang up, so he played along. He received letters for years afterward thanking him for being a good sport about the mistake. He died in 2009, NPR said.  

A tradition was born.

This year, more than 1,250 volunteers in the NORAD Tracks Santa call center will serve two-hour shifts and provide updates on social media and by telephone in as many as eight languages, the service said.

While tons of help will boost Santa's trip from below, it was not immediately clear if Santa will receive a prolonged fighter jet escort on Christmas Eve.

In 2013, NORAD took some heat for showing fighters apparently "bristling with missiles" shadowing Santa's sleigh.

Lt. Cmdr. Bill Lewis, a NORAD spokesman at the time, admitted the command was "guilty as charged. We tried to give it a more operational ... that was purposefully done to try to highlight our mission sets."

The jets, however, weren't actually locked and loaded. Lewis confirmed to Air Force Times' FlightLines blog that the "missiles" actually were fuel tanks.

Still, the "operational feel" was meant to give U.S. adversaries -- most notably, Russia -- a clear message: Don't mess with Santa.

NORAD will be posting to social media, tweeting, answering the phones and responding to emails. The call center will be open for 24 hours, starting at 5 a.m. Eastern Time on Dec. 24.

Santa's preparations and journey will be followed in real time starting Christmas Eve on a special holiday website. It's already up and running with a holiday countdown clock, games, movies, daily activities, and music. Children of all ages can dial the toll-free number, 1-877-446-6723, to get a moment-by-moment update.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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