When Santa takes off Dec. 24, he will have a ground crew of Civil Air Patrol (CAP) cadets calling the weather for him on high-frequency radios. At least seven CAP national network control stations will report local conditions, and manage and provide periodic updates on Santa’s location with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) specialists tracking the jolly gift giver online at NORADSanta.org.
Winter weather with its possibility for strong winds, heavy precipitation, fog, and darkness could affect Santa’s journey as he sets out to deliver presents.
“We maintain a nationwide radio system called HF, or high frequency,” Civil Air Patrol Chief of Communications Malcolm Kyser told AOPA. “The purpose of the HF system is to provide backup infrastructure and independent communications if all other communications channels ever fail.”
Kyser explained that HF radios were a staple throughout the 1960s and 1970s before cellular technology and the internet. It was common for radio enthusiasts to put together Heathkit’s HW-18 HF radio for broadcasting local weather or news, and for other support functions before digital communications were widely deployed.
“Evidently the CAP built these kits by the thousands back in the day, and they have a warm place in the heart of most patrol members,” said Kyser, who remembers making his own radio.
He explained that the “old school radios” were a dependable, yet slow, means of communication; despite technological advances throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Civil Air Patrol didn’t totally abandon the HF radio.
Their importance has re-emerged in light of today’s global security threats. The modern version of the old tube-type HF radio is more reliable than its predecessors.
He said CAP uses the system every day, “but once a year we dedicate it to the NORAD Santa track network” to assist St. Nick and his reindeer during their fast-paced global journey.
“In the last three or four years we began reviving this old tool in the light of potential threats to our communications systems,” Kyser said. “CAP just happens to be at the forefront because we never dropped it,” and in case of a disaster, “when everything else fails, this would work” to get the word out.
Parents and children worldwide can listen to the audio as Santa’s journey is tracked on the NORAD Santa site. Kyser said the reports will occur from 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time through at least midnight.
“They will hear weather reports but there will also be some reports specifically for Santa indicating locations for reindeer food and things like that,” said Kyser. “It’s taking a serious tool and having a little fun with it.”
Kyser said that passing vintage HF communication procedures to today’s cadets “is kind of cool,” and he was “personally having a blast” re-opening the radio door to a new generation of aviators.
“It doesn’t require satellites, it doesn’t require cyber security, it doesn’t really require anything,” Kyser said of the HF radio technology. “It’s painfully slow, old school tech, but it works when all else fails.”