When the red phone rang on the desk of U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup one night in early December 1955, he took a deep breath before answering.

After all, it was the height of the Cold War and he was commander of the combat alert centre charged with watching for Russian threats in the skies over Canada and the U.S.

If that phone rang, only one of two people was likely on the other end: a four-star general at the Pentagon or the president of the United States.

Instead, Shoup heard the very small voice of a child who had a very big question: "Is this Santa Claus?"

That wayward phone call spawned by a newspaper misprint has since evolved into Norad Tracks Santa, a high-tech way for millions of children in Canada and around the world to share a little of the magic of Christmas.

NORAD-pilot

Col. Harry Shoup was the operations commander at the Continental Air Defence Command in Colorado in December 1955, when a newspaper typo prompted kids to call his top-secret hotline asking to speak to Santa Claus. (Norad)

Shoup, who died in 2009, was a fighter pilot who trained pilots in England during the Second World War. 

"He did a lot of really important things. He had a great career," his daughter Terri Van Keuren says from her home in Colorado. But the no-nonsense colonel also loved children — and Christmas. His involvement in launching what would become the Santa tracker program, "that's the thing he was most proud of," she says.

Norad Tracks Santa marks its 60th anniversary this year, as the North American Aerospace Defence Command deploys some of its ultra-sensitive military technology to help children follow the jolly old elf's flight from the North Pole.

How Norad's Santa Tracker tradition got started6:41

When will Santa get to my house?

As part of the program, about 1,500 Canadian and American uniform personnel, as well as U.S. Department of Defence civilians and their families, are volunteering their time at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., to answer phone calls from children around the world today and help them follow Santa's journey through social media.

Last December, their website drew 21.8 million visits from people in 234 countries, and the project found 1.6 million Facebook fans. 

The kids who call 1-877-HI-NORAD — and there were more than 134,000 such calls last year — have lots of questions: Where is Santa right now? When is he going to be at my house? How does he get down the chimney with all those presents?

Sears Santa 1955 ad

A Sears Roebuck newspaper ad with a misprinted phone number for children to call Santa set off what became the Norad Tracks Santa program. (Norad)

"We usually answer the kids, 'Well, Santa usually shows up between nine and midnight but kids have to be in bed because if kids are not in bed, Santa bypasses the house and then he's going to come back when the kids are in bed,'" says Lt. Marco Chouinard, a member of the Royal Canadian Navy serving in Colorado, who is part of the Norad Tracks Santa team.

Sometimes the questions children offer up go well beyond Santa's location. Could he bring them a brother or sister? Could their deployed parents be home for Christmas? Could he say "Hi" to their grandparents in heaven?

As for tracking Santa himself, Norad describes sending out Canadian fighter jets to meet the jolly elf and his well-loaded sleigh when he enters Canadian airspace.

Their deployment is triggered by satellites picking up the infrared signature emitted by the red nose of Rudolph, the leading reindeer, Norad says.

CFB Bagotville in Quebec launches two CF-18 Hornets, which have a maximum speed in the mach 1.8 range, to greet Santa as he approaches from the northeast.

Not so fast, Santa

"We do plead with Santa to slow down because Santa travels at the speed of T and that means the speed of the twinkling of an eye," says Capt. Wright Eruebi, a public affairs officer with 1 Canadian Air Division and the Canadian Norad regional headquarters in Winnipeg.

"It's a little fast for our jets. The jolly old fellow is a good sport. He understands that we are there and slows down for us."

noradtrackssantahq-300

Volunteers for Norad Tracks Santa gather at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado and report Santa's exact location to the media and the public throughout the day and night on Dec. 24. (YouTube/Norad Tracks Santa)

Two fighter jets from 4 Wing Cold Lake in Alberta pick up escort duties over Winnipeg and accompany Santa the rest of the way across Canada, before handing off to American fighter jets.

That Christmas Eve journey plays out for all to see on the Norad Tracks Santa website, a high-tech mapping far removed from the large, see-through board that Shoup's mappers decorated with a hand-drawn sleigh on Dec. 24, 1955.

Shoup, who had to get his top-secret phone number changed after the newspaper misprint, arrived unexpectedly that evening and saw the festive map-board with the sleigh drawn over Canada. The military personnel on duty apologized, saying the sleigh was just a joke.

"He said: 'No, that's OK, get me my PR guy,'" said his daughter.

"They called the radio station and said we've got an unidentified flying object here and it looks like a little sleigh. So then … that went out over the wires and people were calling all night to find out where Santa was. And that's how it started."

Keeping the skies safe

Since then, the program has grown into a serious public relations initiative for Norad, with contributions flowing in from corporations such as Hewlett Packard and Microsoft.

The services and promotions involved would be "worth a few millions dollars" if Norad had to pay for them itself, says Chouinard.

NoradTracks Santa

Volunteers take phone calls from children asking where Santa is and when he will deliver presents to their house during the annual Norad Tracks Santa operation. (Brennan Linsley/File/Associated Press)

The program also gives Norad a good opportunity to talk about what it does, says Eruebi, "which is the protection of Canadians and Americans year round." To that end, Norad jets routinely check out Russian jets and bombers who like to test North American air space.

Still, in a world of full of geopolitical worries, tracking Santa remains an important tradition for Norad.

And it all comes back to the "the magic of Christmas," says Chouinard.