PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colorado: The constant ringing of phones sounding like so many jingles of bells can mean only one thing: Santa is on his way.
Thousands of phone calls are pouring into NORAD Tracks Santa headquarters at this Colorado Air Force base as volunteers chart his progress around the globe. NORAD is the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Last year, trackers fielded more than 170,000 calls from around the world in this annual tradition.
“Where are you? Oh, Oklahoma? Well, Santa is coming your way between 9 and midnight tonight — as long as you’re all asleep,” volunteer Wendy Erlanger tells a young caller.
“This is a hoot,” said Erlanger after hanging up. “This is a story we will always be able to tell,” she added.
About 1,300 volunteers like Erlanger and her kids are fielding calls and e–mails on Christmas Eve. The tracker is a longstanding tradition at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is a joint US-Canadian military operation.
No taxpayer money supports the tracker, and private companies provide volunteers and funding to maintain the tradition. Christmas Eve day, Santa had been spotted over Indonesia, Islamabad and Kabul.
As technology has improved, so has the tracker, which one was nothing more complicated than a map hung on the wall. Today, the tracker available online shows Santa’s exact GPS coordinates and his current present-delivery count.
The questions aren’t limited to phone calls: a bank of volunteers take questions via e–mails, including whether someone could hack Santa’s naughty-or-nice database. (There’s an anti-Grinch firewall.)
“We need technical support,” calls out Ian Waalkes, 14. “How tall are elves?”, he added.
Waalkes comes from a military family and this is his first year helping answer questions. The answer, he learns, is 3 feet.
“I like answering e–mails because I’m not quick on the phone,” he said as his mom, Angel Waalkes laughs before answering an e–mail of her own. (What does Santa like to drink? Non-alcoholic eggnog.)
Another question (clearly from a Navy kid): Does the sled have an arresting hook so Santa can land his sleigh on aircraft carriers to deliver presents? Responded the volunteer: “We think so.”
Michelle Obama mans phones too
First Lady Michelle Obama manned the phones for awhile from Hawaii, where she and President Barack Obama and their daughters are vacationing. She gave updates on Santa’s progress to various inquisitive children, including Daniel, 8, and his sister, Danielle, 5.
Obama told the children that she could see “a blip on the screen and it looks like it’s Santa with a sleigh” heading for Italy. She said Santa was “moving pretty fast,” so she urged the pair to “get to bed on time.”
NORAD’s satellites continuously monitor the air and space above North America, watching for errant airplanes and even UFOs. Vice Commander Lt. General Michael Dubie said tracking Santa is no different than the important work the Americans and Canadian military do at NORAD every day. He said the tracker helps NORAD connect with the world it serves, especially since calls about Santa come in from around the globe.
“When you walk into this facility, you can feel the enthusiasm and the excitement,” Dubie said. “It’s Christmas Eve and anywhere you go in the world, regardless of your religion, people understand Christmas is a time of giving, a time of joy,” he added.