Norad tracking Santa only small part of their mission

Norad tracking Santa only small part of their mission

Just after 9:00 p.m. last Christmas Eve, Public Safety Canada alerted emergency stakeholders about something discovered near the North Pole.

The notification received through a December 24, 2021 request for information from Canada’s Government Operations Center describes the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) “tracking an unidentified flying object, nine reindeer and a man in a red suit flying around the world.” Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons were “prepared to spot, identify, greet and escort the aircraft once it enters Canadian airspace.” Ho, ho, ho – the annual Norad Tracks Santa program had begun.

Norad has been tasked with protecting the United States and Canada since 1958. Headquartered in Colorado and facilities in both countries, the binational defense group aims to track everything that flies in and around American and Canadian airspace via a network of satellites and radar, with fighter jets ready to intercept potential threats such as long-range Russian bombers.

While Norad Tracks Santa’s six-decade holiday tradition is perhaps Norad’s most visible operation, Canadian and US military personnel work around the clock, year-round to protect North America. Based on declassified documents and public records, Norad tracked down something that wasn’t Santa Claus nine times in the 2000s.

Floating Light

Just before Christmas, on the night of December 23, 2018, a woman ashore in Yarmouth, NS, and a fisherman out at sea in the Bay of Fundy both contacted a search and rescue center in Halifax to report a light that hovered over the Atlantic Ocean.

According to documents obtained through a request for information, members of a Norad-affiliated Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadron in North Bay, Ontario, reviewed Norad radar data “and observed three primary radar hits” that exactly matched the approximate 45-minute period sighting. Few details were given about the light, other than that it was “yellow, stable, and floating”.

“This is an area that has good low-level radar coverage, so there is no explanation as to why there were only three points, all at exactly 12,800 feet, with no points leading to or continuing to other elevations,” it said in an RCAF report, notes on the incident: “Suggest that these could have been independent radar hits on the weather and not an actual airborne object.”

Whatever it was, with “no evidence anyone is in danger,” authorities declined to investigate the calls further.

Once classified, a heavily redacted Air Force log describing the case includes the words “Santa Claus is [airborne]’ with an emoticon smile at 09:27 Zulu on 24 December, marking Christmas Eve on the other side of the world and the start of the annual Norad Tracks Santa programme.

Not far from the shore of Yarmouth, the fishing village of Shag Harbour, NS is the famous site of an October 1967 mass sighting of a luminous unidentified flying object disappearing into the ocean.


While the Pentagon and NASA investigate what they call “unidentified aerial phenomena” or UAP, the Canadian military routinely states that it “does not typically investigate sightings of unknown or unexplained phenomena outside of the context of studying credible threats, potential threats, or potential distress.” in the case of search and rescue operations.” A recent investigation by found that at least four incidents have met these criteria since 2016, including three involving Norad.

On both November 21, 2018 and September 21, 2020, Canadian CF-18 fighter jets were scrambled to examine unknown radar tracks spotted by Norad near Canada’s northern approaches. In either case, the jets saw nothing and the radar tracks were ultimately deemed “wrong” data.

In a third instance, Norad had fighter jets muddled on Dec. 22, 2016, after an American Airlines flight reported it was making “evasive maneuvers” when an “unidentified aircraft” appeared “from its left side.” Norad picked up “a single radar hit” behind the American Airlines flight, which “reported seeing a plane with a rotating white light.” However, the CF-18s eventually returned to Quebec without finding it.

According to a report in a public aviation incident database, on November 27, 2002, the Norad radar also tracked “a large tubular object between [37,000] and [47,000 feet] in the Chicago area moving toward the Thunder Bay region of northwestern Ontario. Airplanes in the vicinity were asked to report visual contact. Despite three requests for information, no further details have become known.


Sometimes the movement of a radar track provides enough detail for Norad to determine that it is not a threat. Just before midnight on February 11, 2019, Norad spotted something over northern Canada that was “following” the jet stream. The object was moving at speeds “consistent with upper-level winds” and at altitudes of 20,000 to 27,000 feet, leading Norad Canada personnel to conclude that it was a “decay object.” probably a “potential balloon”. Civil aircraft were notified of “the potential hazard to aviation” and no further action was taken.


On October 17, two US Air Force fighter jets intercepted two long-range Russian bombers near North America. According to a press release from Norad, the American F-16 fighter jets were grounded after Russian nuclear-capable Tu-95 Bear-H bombers were spotted flying near Alaska in international airspace.

Norad’s press releases have detailed more than half a dozen such incidents since 2020 alone. For example, on January 31, 2020, Norad identified two nuclear-capable Russian Tu-160 Blackjack supersonic bombers that entered what is known as the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone: an area outside Canadian airspace that is monitored for incoming threats. The Russian aircraft remained in international airspace and no further action was taken.

The last time Russian aircraft entered the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone was on September 11, 2022, when Norad spotted two Russian maritime reconnaissance aircraft.


Founded to protect North America from Soviet missiles and bombers, Norad’s mission has come full circle nearly 65 years later amid rising tensions with Russia.

During a session of the Canadian Senate Defense Committee in November, Canada’s Deputy Commander of Norad warned that Russia had resumed its bomber and submarine patrols near North America following the February 24 illegal invasion of Ukraine had gone back.

There have been increasing calls for Norad to upgrade and modernize its aging systems to defend North America against new and emerging threats, such as advanced cruise missiles and Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons designed to evade our Cold War defenses while they travel more than five times the speed of sound.

In June, Canada announced it would invest $4.9 billion over six years in Norad and continental defenses, primarily to replace the 1980s North Warning System: a chain of 52 radar stations spread across Stretching 4,800 kilometers from Alaska to Labrador and acting as a “tripwire” for the continent’s northern approaches. With no firm timeline for its replacement, defense officials say North America must rely on “deterrence through punishment” until new technology is deployed will.


According to Norad, it all started by accident in 1955 due to a typo on the phone number in a local newspaper ad. When a kid dialed the number in hopes of speaking to Santa, they actually got the commander on duty at the then Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs.

US Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup quickly realized the mistake and reassured the child that they were speaking to Santa himself. Calls kept coming in, and Shoup assigned an officer to answer, starting a tradition that continued when Norad was founded by the US and Canada in 1958.

Today, Norad announces it is sharing Santa’s whereabouts with millions of children and families in 200 countries worldwide, with volunteers typically answering more than 130,000 calls from the Norad Tracks Santa hotline. This Christmas you can now follow the action on the Norad Tracks Santa website.

These documents, obtained through multiple access requests for information, describe times when Norad was chasing something that wasn’t Santa Claus.

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