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Santa's on his way: Military Helps Kids Follow His Flight

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- (CBS NEWS) Tens of thousands of children from around the world plan to call the North American Aerospace Defense Command to ask where Santa is -- and starting Saturday, they get a cheery answer about the mythical route from a real person, not a recording. 

The wildly popular NORAD Tracks Santa operation has launched its 61st run at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. Volunteers are answering phone calls and emails and post updates about Santa’s storybook world tour on Facebook and Twitter. 

On Saturday, posts gave a heads up to cities worldwide that Santa was on his way.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Paul Noel said 1,500 volunteers answered nearly 141,000 phone calls and more than 2,800 emails last year. The NORAD spokesman is quick to say his name really is Noel. 

Here’s a look at the Christmas tradition: 

How does it work?

Starting at 4 a.m. MST Christmas Eve, children can call a toll-free number, 877-446-6723 (877-Hi-NORAD) or email noradtracksantaoutlook.com to ask where Santa is on his fabled journey. 

Volunteers sit elbow-to-elbow in conference rooms at Peterson Air Force Base, NORAD’s home, answering phones and checking computer-generated maps projected onto big screens. First lady Michelle Obama traditionally answers calls via a remote hookup, but Noel said it was not yet known if she will participate again this year. 

Elsewhere at the Air Force base, volunteers update NORAD’s websiteFacebook page and Twitter feed.

Last year, the website had 22 million unique visitors, Noel said. 

Volunteers work in shifts, taking the last calls at 3 a.m. MST Christmas Day.

Why does NORAD “track” Santa?

It started in 1955 when a Colorado Springs newspaper ad invited children to call Santa Claus but accidentally listed the number for the hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD’s predecessor. 

Air Force Col. Harry Shoup took a call from a child and thought he was being pranked. When he figured out he was talking to a little boy, he pretended he was Santa. 

More children called, and Shoup instructed airmen to play along. 

It’s now a tradition, beloved by kids and the military. Volunteers range from generals and admirals to enlisted men and women, who sometimes report for telephone duty in military uniform and a Santa hat. 

What is NORAD?

The North American Aerospace Defense Command is a joint U.S.-Canada operation that defends the sky over both nations and monitors sea approaches. It’s best known for its Cold War-era control room deep inside Cheyenne Mountain - now used only as a backup - and for NORAD Tracks Santa.

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