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Fri, Dec 23, 2005

NORAD Celebrates 50 Years Of Tracking St. Nick

A Wrong Number Started A Holiday Tradition

The North American Aerospace Defense Command is observing its 50th anniversary of tracking Santa Claus on his annual rounds, NORAD officials told Aero-News Thursday.

The tradition of tracking Santa began in 1955. That's when a local Sears, Roebuck and Co. store ran a newspaper ad urging children to make a phone call on Christmas Eve and talk to Santa Claus.

There was just one problem: as fate would have it, the phone number was misprinted and -- instead of reaching Santa -- youngsters found themselves talking with Air Force Col. Harry Shoup of the Continental Air Defense Command at Cheyenne Mountain.

Rather than hanging up, Shoup and his troops answered every child's call that night with a report of Santa's location. CONAD personnel kept up the practice until 1958, when NORAD was formed and took over Santa-tracking duties.

NORAD has continued the Santa tracking tradition for several reasons, according to Air Force Master Sgt. John Tomassi, co-director of Santa-tracking operations.

"I think in the initial stages, back in the '50s and '60s, it was just a novelty kind of thing," he said. "A lot of people -- children and their families -- do this tracking Santa as a tradition in their family. We've recognized now that people have taken this program as a tradition, and what we can do is educate them."

"We do track Santa," he continued. "However, we do provide for the defense of the North American aerospace also. We use the satellites to track Santa, we use the radar, we use jet fighters, but all of those exact same things are what we use to monitor the aerospace of North America."

While youngsters are tracking Santa's flight, they may also learn a thing or two about the world around them, Tomassi said.

"We think of it as a geography lesson," said he explained, "because the different places that Santa visits or sightings that we have, a lot of people haven't heard of. If we can get some children to go and look at a map to find out where Timbuktu is, or where India is, or Pakistan, or wherever, then we feel all the better for that."

Last Christmas Eve, volunteers at Cheyenne Mountain answered nearly 55,000 phone calls and 35,000 e-mails from children around the world. During December 2004, the NORAD Tracks Santa Web site had 912 million hits from 181 countries. This year, about 500 volunteers - most of them US and Canadian military personnel and their families - will report for telephone-answering duty on Christmas Eve. But already, youngsters are sending messages to Santa via the NORAD Tracks Santa Web site.

"E-mails are arriving from India and Ireland and all over the world already from children with their wish lists who want to talk to Santa," Tomassi said. "We receive, on average, 200 e-mails a day."

(Aero-News Salutes Army Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen is assigned to North American Aerospace Defense Command public affairs.)

FMI: www.noradsanta.org, www.norad.mil

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