It was 1955 and the United States was a bit on edge thanks to the Cold War it found itself in with the Soviet Union. Just one year prior, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had formed the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) to provide the United States with an early warning of a Soviet aerial attack, in order to ensure Strategic Air Command could launch a counterattack without being destroyed. Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, CONAD had a top-secret hotline directly wired to the Pentagon.
Eisenhower had tasked the joint military command with scanning the skies for “reds” flying bomber planes. But on December 24, 1955, under the direction of U.S. Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup, CONAD issued a press release to the American public: While scanning the skies, CONAD’s radar and ground observation outposts had spotted a different kind of “red” vehicle in the skies—a big sleigh, piloted by none other than the famous, if ever-elusive, Santa Claus, and powered by a team of reindeer. Colonel Shoup reassured “good little boys and girls” that American forces would “guard Santa and his sleigh…against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.”
And for the past sixty-seven years, CONAD and its successor, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)—a bi-national organization of the United States and Canada responsible for the continent’s nuclear defense—have been doing just that. Using the NORAD radar system called the North Warning System, whose 47 installations are strung across Canada’s North and Alaska, NORAD monitors the North Pole for any sleigh-flight activity come mid-December. Once Santa hits the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean, NORAD knows he’s begun his “faster than starlight” annual trek of holiday cheer. NORAD’s satellites, located 22,300 miles above Earth in a geosynchronous orbit, utilize their infrared sensors to detect Rudolph’s bright red nose, which gives off an infrared signature similar to a missile launch, according to the agency. And finally, NORAD jet fighters provide some friendly escort protection for Santa, starting with Canadian fighter pilots flying the CF-18 out of Newfoundland, followed by American fighter pilots in either F-15s (Eagles), F-16s (Fighting Falcons), or F-22s (Raptors). NORAD reports that these fighter pilots love the occasional photo-op with Santa’s famous flight crew, but that any interceptions are also captured by the NORAD Santa Cams in space, which help confirm Santa’s safe flight even when he’s out of American airspace.
Typically, NORAD tracks airplanes, missiles, space launches, and anything else that flies in or around the North American continent. Its mission is to defend the homeland through aerospace warning, aerospace control, and maritime warning for North America. But thanks to one child’s misplaced call on that top-secret red phone in 1955 because of a misprinted number in a Sears Roebuck advertisement, and thanks to one compassionate, holiday-loving U.S. Air Force colonel who took the call, NORAD has every year since prepared for the additional December-specific mission of tracking Santa’s December 24th travels. Published over at NORAD’s Tracks Santa, NORAD relays Santa’s movements beginning at 4 A.M. EST, and trackers worldwide can begin calling for updates beginning at 6 A.M. EST.
As NORAD modestly explains: “We’re the only organization that has the technology, the qualifications, and the people to do it.”