WASHINGTON -- The nation's air defense command will carry on its nearly 50-year tradition of "tracking" the Christmas Eve flight of Santa Claus tonight despite the "orange" alert and warnings of a possible Al Qaeda plot to hijack foreign airliners and crash them into US cities and industrial sites over the holiday season.
Officials at the joint operations of North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, and the newly established US Northern Command, or Northcom, will combine their serious responsibilities -- monitoring early-warning radar and satellites to direct the stepped-up fighter jet patrols and newly installed antiaircraft missile batteries around major cities -- with the annual exercise in whimsy.
"If we stop doing what we planned to do, then the terrorists win," said Michael Perini, a spokesman for the agencies. "The children of the world deserve to have Santa tracked. We feel that doing that and getting Santa safely around the world also hopefully reminds people that it's safe to fly."
The radar image -- along with Web cams showing Santa as he passes over 24 parts of the world -- may be accessed at noradsanta.org. Perini said they follow the sleigh by locking in on the glow of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with space-based cameras built to monitor Soviet missiles.
The agency has also set up a toll-free hot line for children who want Santa updates: 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) About 400 military volunteers inside Cheyenne Mountain Air Station will operate the phone bank from 9 a.m. today until 3 a.m. tomorrow.
The tradition dates back to 1954, Perini said, when a Colorado department store printed the wrong number in a newspaper ad to call Santa. The number actually went to the command director inside the NORAD compound.
"The colonel thought the president was calling him, and it ended up being this child saying `You're not Santa, but do you know where Santa is?' " Perini said. "Through the years it's become an incredible program."
Last year NORAD received 294.5 million website hits, 37,000 e-mails, and 27,000 phone calls from more than 100 countries.
But a short distance away from the light-hearted frenzy of the Santa-tracking station, officials in the NORAD control room will continue directing the "adjustments in our alert response and our irregular air patrols" instituted with the Orange Alert.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said, the operation has scrambled fighter jets 1,600 times.