By Stan Ashbee
Alta Newspaper Group
Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado is once again home to the NORAD Tracks Santa program in 2019, as Santa (the original gift delivery go-to-guy) prepares for another Christmas Eve.
Normally, the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s primary day-to-day mission is to defend the United States and Canada through radars, satellites and interceptors — but on Christmas Eve NORAD uses that same technology to track Old Saint Nick on his travels, as he delivers presents across the globe.
“We are proud to carry on the tradition of tracking Santa, as he travels along his yuletide flight path,” said Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command.
NORAD is a bi-national U.S. and Canadian command charged with aerospace and maritime warning and aerospace control of North America, as well as monitoring aerospace activity globally. Tracking Santa is NORAD’s festive side hustle each and every year since 1955 — to the delight of children everywhere.
Way back in the 1950s, when a local newspaper advertisement informed children they could call Santa directly, the contact number in the advertisement was misprinted. Instead of reaching Santa, the phone rang through to the crew commander on duty, U.S. Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup, at the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center, the predecessor to NORAD.
According to the history books, Col. Shoup was quick to realize a mistake had been made and assured the child he was Santa. Shoup then assigned a duty officer to continue answering calls. Thus, a tradition was born and continued when NORAD was formed in 1958.
Each year since, NORAD has reported Santa’s location on Dec. 24 to millions of children and families. On Dec. 1, the 64th iteration of NORAD Tracks Santa began with the launch of the http://www.noradsanta.org website. On Dec. 24, users may call 1-877-HiNORAD for Santa’s up-to-date location.
Cpt. Cameron Hillier from NORAD Tracks Santa said he is one of the two Canadians at headquarters and is the media operations officer.
“So far, things are going along very well with getting things up and running prior to the big day,” Hillier noted. “We’ve got some things new from last year or “new/old”. Going in, it seems to be a pretty steady pace and slowly building up.”
One of the “new/old” additions present once again this season from the past, Hillier noted, is an upgraded operations centre to receive thousands of calls through an evening.
“As you can imagine, it takes a pretty significant infrastructure.”
Hillier added the NORAD Tracks Santa phone application is back.
“The operations centre received 137,458 calls. At the same time, operations answered 4,855 e-mails.”
Stat-wise, Hillier said, the NORAD Tracks Santa website had about 15.1 million page visits last year.
“That was all supported, by not only military personnel here, but also folks in and around the Colorado Springs area from out of state and Canada who came in and basically gave us a volunteer strength of about 1,482 people,” Hillier explained.
It takes a year-round effort to build all these things up and pull NORAD Tracks Santa together. “As we go along and get closer to Dec. 24 we involve more and more people,” Hillier said.
Work begins on the program in the summer for the upcoming holiday season and includes more than 1,500 people as far as putting their efforts in to make the program possible.
Hillier said the longevity of the program is simply thanks to its history.
“This is not something you could probably make up. Certainly no military organization could just make up this program. I think it is tied to its unique history and the heritage that comes along with it.”
From what was a humble beginning with a merry mishap, NORAD Tracks Santa has evolved, at this point, into a 64-year long tradition.
“To speak to the longevity of it, I think it’s more tied to the history of it and the heritage, that is not only for NORAD, but for North America in general. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say people are introduced to NORAD through the NORAD Tracks Santa program,” Hillier added.