If you're in the sky over North America, someone is watching you. That's true, whether you're BigAir Flight 23, Beldar the Conehead, or Santa Claus.
This year will mark the 57th year that NORAD will officially track Santa as he undertakes his annual mission to deliver toys to good little girls and boys around the world. A combination of public service and primary mission, "NORAD Tracks Santa" has become one of the most recognized activities of the joint US-Canadian military operation that guards the airspace over North America.
In an interview with Enterprise Efficiency, Lt. Cmdr. Bill Lewis of NORAD said, "Our mission as a bi-national command is responsible for warning of impending missile and air attack and maintaining the air sovereignty of North America. Any time an object approaches North America, we have responsibilities that we have to undertake. It just makes sense for us to continue to track Santa." He explained that unique characteristics of Santa's vehicle and a special relationship between Santa and NORAD help each with their respective missions.
When asked whether there were any unique characteristics of Santa's sleigh that helps it stand out among all the traffic that fills the air on Christmas Eve, Lewis said, "Rudoph's nose puts off quite the heat signature. We can easily track him based on the signature coming off that unique nose." He also spoke of information that is shared between Santa and NORAD regarding plans and tracks, and one special gesture that Santa makes that allows US and Canadian Air Force pilots to properly identify the vehicle and welcome it to North American airspace.
"Santa's sleigh is, of course, much faster than our fighter jets -- it has to be if he's to reach all the children in one night. We have fighters on constant patrol, and Santa will slow down as he reaches North America long enough for the fighters to fly alongside. He'll wave to our pilots, who wave back, and then he'll get back up to speed to continue his mission," Lewis said.
On the ground, over 1,200 volunteers staff a telephone bank that answers calls from around the world asking for updated information on Santa and his location. According to Lewis, in 2011 there were nearly 102,000 calls to NORAD Tracks Santa (1-877-HI-NORAD in the US, or 1-719-556-5211 from anywhere in the world), each answered by a Canadian or US service member, Department of Defense civilian employee, retired member of the military, or volunteer working what is typically a two-hour shift on the phone.
NORAD is quick to point out that the people staffing the phones are all volunteers, and that all computer and other equipment used for answering public requests come from corporate sponsors -- no taxpayer money is used for the operation aside from the basic tracking activities that are part of NORAD's primary mission. Lewis said, "We drill this quite a bit and respond in a real-world scenario. Santa approaching North America is similar to any object of interest as they approach North America: We need to understand who it is and have his route figured out."
Lt. Cmdr. Lewis was quite open in talking about why the volunteers give their time, and the benefits that accrue to both NORAD and those who participate. "We do this, really, as a good will gesture. It does fit perfectly with our mission set, but we do it for the kids. The innocence of the children is incredible -- you take calls from all over the world." Those children, he says, tend to have a standard set of requests no matter where the call originates. "They want to know 2 things: Where's Santa and when's he going to be at my house?" Lewis said that Santa's schedule means that he's at any given area between 10:00 p.m. and midnight. It's important to know, Lewis said, that Santa knows when children are sleeping or awake, so NORAD generally tells them they should get to sleep soon. Parents, he noted, tend to appreciate that advice.
If you want to track Santa yourself, you can go to www.noradsanta.org or use the tracking screen below.