DENVER (Reuters) - Santa Claus has embarked on his annual Christmas Eve mission to deliver presents to millions of children after a smooth take-off from his North Pole base, at least according to U.S. military officials who track his reindeer-powered sleigh.
"All systems are go," U.S. Army Major Ruth Castro, spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said on Wednesday.
Since the mid-1950s, NORAD and its predecessor agency have made a tradition of tracking the flight path of Santa, who is also known as Kris Kringle and St. Nicholas, among other monikers.
NORAD's Santa-tracking website, www.noradsanta.org, provides real-time animated updates of the worldwide trek.
Last year, the site had 20 million unique visitors, Castro said, adding that volunteers who staff a telephone hotline fielded some 117,000 calls from interested children and others.
The tradition started in 1955 when a local Sears Roebuck department store misprinted the phone number to the North Pole in a newspaper advertisement, according to NORAD's website.
The first call came from a little girl and went to U.S. Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup, director of what was then known as the Continental Air Defense Command.
The colonel took the child's Christmas wish list, and assured her that Santa was on schedule. When more calls flooded into the command center, the military added a new task to its air defense mission.
Renamed NORAD three years later as a combined Canadian and U.S. agency, the Santa-tracking tradition has continued. It now employs social media sites, and smart phone apps to spread the word on Santa's whereabouts.
Castro said NORAD coordinates with Santa's "Elf Launch Staff" to confirm his departure time and general flight plan but after that, "Santa calls the shots," she said.
While he has made his rounds for generations, Santa has embraced modern technology, Castro said.
"We do know Santa has some sophisticated on-board hardware," she said, adding that the exact nature of the equipment is classified.
Once he enters North American airspace, Canadian and American air force fighter jets escort St. Nick's sleigh, Castro said, and aviators are thrilled when they see him.
"Santa slows down and waves to the pilots, and they tip their wings in return," she said.
Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Daniel Wallis