One December day in 1955, just weeks after Soviet nuclear scientists detonated their newest 1.6-megaton “super bomb” in Kazakhstan, the hotline rang for Col. Harry Shoup, commander of the watch at the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center.
“That red phone, boy, that’s either the old man, the four-star, or the Pentagon,” Shoup would later recall in a video interview posted by NORAD, the modern successor of CONAD. “I was all shook up.”
He remembered a small girl’s voice at the other end of the line, on that most secret of phones.
“Are you really Santa Claus?” she asked him.
“And I looked around my staff and thought, somebody’s playing a joke on me, and this isn’t funny.”
Shoup had a split second to think, the weight of a young child’s expectations suddenly on shoulders that had been carrying quite a lot already.
She repeated the question, distraught by growing suspicion that the man at the end of the line was not, in fact, Santa. Shoup realized that “there had been some screwup” with the phones.
“Yes I am,” the Air Force colonel recalled his reply, speaking more firmly, with confidence. “Have you been a good little girl?”
That was the beginning of it.
After his death in 2009, Shoup’s family picked up the story in a 2014 interview recorded for the StoryCorps project by National Public Radio. His children’s recollections differed slightly in some details (was it a boy or a girl on the line in that first call?), memories compressed and shifted by the passage of decades, perhaps. Shoup was an officer of his time, straight-laced and disciplined, and may have been more gruff with that first caller before realizing what had actually happened: A newspaper ad in Colorado Springs had mistakenly advertised Shoup’s red phone line as the number to call Santa. But he recovered quickly enough in each version of the story to come up with the appropriate “ho-ho-ho” in time to save the day, followed soon by, “may I speak to your mother?” It was that mother who called Shoup's attention to the misprinted ad.
More calls came, of course, and Shoup ordered airmen under his command to man the phone and avoid disappointing children.
“It got to be a joke at the command center. You know, ‘The old man’s really flipped his lid this time. We’re answering Santa calls,'” Shoup’s daughter, Terri Van Keuren, recalled for StoryCorps.
Then came Christmas Eve, 1955, and Shoup reported for duty in the operations center to find a sleigh and eight reindeer drawn on the sprawling glass map of North America used to track air targets. Subordinates apologized for the joke, which the colonel might not have appreciated instantly, but in another beat he was on the phone to a local radio station, announcing that the “Combat Alert Center” was tracking an unidentified flying object. “Why, it looks like a sleigh.”
Radio stations began calling for hourly updates, and the colonel obliged. Shoup would receive letters from around the world for the rest of his life. In the 1990s, by which time NORAD’s Santa tracking operation had become a well-established and well-loved tradition, he would carry those letters in a locked briefcase “like it was top-secret information,” his family recalled. Shoup retired after a distinguished career with many important decisions and missions, but will always be remembered best for taking that first call and authorizing the use of national defense resources to protect the wonder and imagination of children who love Santa, and who wish for good things to be true.
“It’s probably the thing he was proudest of, too,” his son, Rick, recalled.
Shoup was not the first adult with a serious mindset and a serious job to find magic in Christmas from a child’s perspective. In 1897, Virginia O’Hanlon, age 8, wrote a distressed letter to The New York Sun after friends claimed Santa Claus does not exist, and asking The Sun, respected by her papa as an arbiter of truth, to settle the matter. It arrived on the desk of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church, whose ageless reply, published as the official position of the newspaper, began, “Virginia, your little friends are wrong,” and explained that Santa exists “as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.”
A straight line may be drawn from the mustachioed newspaperman through the Air Force colonel, and they are not alone in lining up on this path. Pilots may join in, too.
Mike Filucci, AOPA vice president of flight operations and the Pilot Information Center, recalled his promotion to captain at American Airlines coming with a special opportunity.
“I worked on Christmas for the next seven years in a row. I always made Santa sighting PAs for the kids on board and they always got excited,” Filucci said.
Jeppesen produces a special approach plate for the North Pole Village RNAV (GPS) Rwy 18 approach. Notably, Santa has a procedure turn to contend with but it’s straight in after that and the minima are quite low, down to zero RVR if he flies the full approach. Presumably sequencing is not an issue; the procedure does note the presence of “supersonic heavy departures; non-sleigh traffic discouraged” at North Pole Village on Dec. 24. (Instrument instructors can have no end of fun with this decidedly nonstandard approach available to just one pilot in the world. Is that procedure turn required? Is circle-to-land authorized if Rudolph’s nose is out?)
Sixty years after Shoup answered the call, NORAD continues the tradition with an ever-more-sophisticated special operation that now spans the month of December. A special NORAD website created by men and women of very serious purpose undertakes the serious task of not only tracking Santa when he’s operational, but providing children and interested adults with a mix of stories, games, graphics, and a countdown clock to the magic day itself.
NORAD spokesman Preston Schlachter noted that special cameras were introduced in 1998, part of an international expansion of the effort to keep tabs on the flight.
“We use these cameras just once a year, on Dec. 24,” Schlachter explained in a telephone interview, noting that each camera is active for about an hour, just long enough to capture an image or two of the passing sleigh and send them to NORAD for dissemination to girls and boys. It has become quite an operation, what Shoup started. Dozens of companies, organizations, and agencies collaborate on the exercise. Nonprofit groups, video game makers, educational institutions, and government agencies are among them.
NORAD brings all of its assets to bear, Schlachter reports, including radar, space vehicles, and military pilots who keep tabs on the supersonic mission. They’ve now added social media functions as well, this being a modern age; the website is available in eight languages. Official apps are available in Windows, Apple, and Google Play stores. And there remains, of course, a phone line as well, staffed by a live operator starting at 6 a.m. Eastern on Dec. 24. Email updates are also possible. The effort has many sponsors.
“I couldn’t tell you how many hits that we get throughout the night,” Schlachter confessed, referring to the Santa tracking Web servers, though he assured this writer that those computers are up to the challenge.
Surely, Shoup would approve of this application of technology. Retired Air Force Gen. Victor Renuart Jr., former commander of NORAD, reflected in 2009 on Shoup’s singular achievement:
“His kind and thoughtful gesture will forever be a legacy at NORAD, and with the millions of people around the world who follow the NORAD Tracks Santa program each year,” Renuart said in a 2009 tribute posted online. “Truly, forever in the minds of millions he will be fondly remembered as the ‘Santa Colonel’ and his legend will live on forever.”
Shoup himself told that first caller that believing makes it real, that there is indeed a Santa Claus. That prompted a question about the practicality of the notion, just as a pilot might wonder about when poring over aeronautical charts with an E6B in hand, calculating just how fast that sleigh must have to fly to reach all those homes in the span of a single night.
“That’s the magic of Christmas,” Shoup recalled responding, in that first official confirmation of Santa’s existence by an Air Force officer, a man entrusted with direct responsibility for the air defense of his nation. “If anybody asks, you just tell them. That’s the magic of Christmas.”