For NORAD, Santa Claus is coming to town
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As it has for the past 61 years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command will be closely monitoring the flight path of one particular red aircraft later this month, a tradition that legend says began with a misplaced phone call.

With the help of infrared radar, a constellation of defense satellites and other surveillance equipment, NORAD adds tracking the whereabouts of Santa Claus's sleigh on Christmas Eve to its official missions of airspace warning and control. With over 1,500 NORAD volunteers contributing each Christmas season, it is a mission taken seriously.

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“This all started when a young boy accidentally dialed the unlisted phone number of the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center here in Colorado Springs,” Preston Schlachter, a NORAD spokesman, said in a phone interview.

The legend tells that the boy was trying to contact Saint Nick through a phone number misprinted in a department store ad, but ended up reaching the military command center instead.

“The operations center was quick to realize what had happened and kind of played along with it, and a tradition was born ever since,” Schlachter said.

Since the number was printed in the local paper, Schlachter said, the commander on duty, Col. Harold Shoup, "realized they would start getting more phone calls." Rather than correct the boy, Shoup ordered his men, usually tasked with monitoring for possible foreign attacks, to track down Santa and report his whereabouts to the callers.

“They reassured anybody who called that NORAD would guarantee Santa’s safe journey to and from the North Pole,” Schlachter said.

NORAD systems and hardware have vastly improved since 1955. Schlachter said "the very same technology that we use to keep America safe" can also pinpoint "the heat signature of Rudolph’s nose."

Ground and maritime support provided by the Navy and Coast Guard assure Santa’s safe passage as he delivers gifts around the world. Fighter jets, both American and Canadian, fly over North American airspace tracking and protecting Santa’s sleigh throughout the night.

"Then we also have Santa-cams throughout the world, in strategic locations, that keep an eye on his whereabouts as he flies through key cities,” Schlachter said.

And these days, kids have multiple ways they can follow the jolly old elf's flight path. Besides calling 1-877-HINORAD, children of all ages are able to follow Santa’s route online at NORADSanta.org, which also offers holiday-themed games and activities.

Curious children can follow along on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and — new this year — Instagram.

But it's not just kids who wonder where Santa is on Christmas Eve.

“There is a multi-generational aspect to it now, too,” Schlachter said, “because parents and grandparents who were tracking Santa in their youth are now sharing that with their kids or grandkids.”

With over 70 sponsors and partners, the Santa Tracker receives nearly 9 million unique visitors from more than 200 countries and territories around the world, according to NORAD.

“I can’t say it is the only reason, but the key reason why it works is because of the amazing generosity of all these corporate and government partners,” Schlachter said, adding that companies such as Microsoft and General Motors get personally involved with the Claus chase.

“You can actually use your blue OnStar button if you have a GM vehicle to find out Santa’s whereabouts,” he said.

Most callers are told Santa will arrive between 9 p.m. and midnight local time, and volunteers have fielded questions about everything from the weather to what to feed flying reindeer. Schlachter, who has himself volunteered to answer the phones on multiple Christmas Eves, says every call is different.

“We had a young child, a young boy from the [United Kingdom] that asked about Father Christmas,” he said. “I was quick to realize that it’s not just Santa Claus, it’s the different cultures that celebrate Santa Claus in their own way that are calling the Command Center to find out his whereabouts.”