Santa Claus may see you when you’re sleeping, but only a privileged few can actually see Santa during his high-speed international flight on Christmas Eve.
The job of escorting Santa while the rest of the world sleeps falls to the same people tasked with keeping North American skies safe the other 364 days of the year: the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD.)
But it’s more than monitoring the jolly man's flight on radar: Santa also gets a fighter jet escort during his time in North American airspace.
Videos released on NORAD’s website reveal two of the four Canadian fighter jet pilots given one of the most special, secret missions around: escorting Santa’s sleigh during his Canadian deliveries “like a small parade.”
CFB Bagotville-based Maj. Benoit Bouchard and Capt. Vincent Landry were filmed as part of NORAD’s promotional video this year.
After Santa’s flight through Eastern Canada is complete, the Quebec-based pilots will hand off to CF-18s from 4 Wing in Cold Lake, Alta., somewhere around the Ontario-Manitoba border.
CBC News has learned that the pilots taking over this year are Lt.-Col. Daniel McLeod and Captain Shamus Allen.
The western pilots will escort Santa to the border with Alaska before handing off to their American counterparts.
McLeod, who is the commanding officer of 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron, tells CBC News that while it means being away from his own kids at Christmas, the chance to fly this particular mission was one he didn’t want to miss late in his flying career.
“I wanted to, for my own personal benefit, get the chance to see jolly St. Nick in his sleigh,” McLeod said Thursday. He says his kids “understand that I have a pretty important job to do, both for the defence of Canada but also to escort Santa Claus across the countryside.”
McLeod said that in addition to the CF-18’s modern video targeting pod, which is capable of taking good images at night, he’s going to try to bring along his own personal camera for the flight.
Pilots who have flown the escort missions in previous years report Santa does slow down and wave for the initial interception and identification by the CF-18s. He’s hoping to get a good shot of the otherwise-elusive elf, who has appeared to enjoy posing for the camera during previous missions in previous years.
Interception is part of NORAD's job regardless, McLeod says. "We have to identify and confirm who or what that is that’s flying through our airspace and or approaching our airspace and since Santa will be approaching from across the Atlantic, we have a fairly good idea that it’s him but we don’t take any chances."
Meeting Santa is special, but in some ways, it works just like any other interception.
"It’s not that unique in that we’re intercepting a flying object and then tracking it and passing the information on to our higher headquarters," he admits.
The CF-18 pilots are planning to wave their fighter jet wings as a sign of respect for St. Nicholas.
“After that he’s going to be back down to business. He’s got to go down a lot of chimneys,” McLeod says.
In the past, Santa has chosen to fly at an altitude of between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, NORAD says, which avoids too much climbing and descending. Any higher, and things would get pretty cold for him, not to mention posing other dangers.
“Part of the reason we escort Santa is not only out of a sign of respect … but it’s also for his own safety,” McLeod says. “We’re monitoring civilian air traffic, so if he was up much higher that could be a concern.”
"We've got your six," Landry assures Santa Claus in NORAD’s video, which McLeod explains is how a fighter jet pilot commits to looking after his wingman.
“Fighters always travel in at least pairs,” he says, “you’ve always got someone who is ‘checking your six,’ who is checking behind you, making sure nobody is sneaking up behind you to do you harm.”
McLeod will be speaking with his colleagues as well as other military planners over the weekend to make final arrangements for the mission. They'll be checking weather forecasts and making sure spare planes are ready in case any difficulties arise.
Because of the vast distances, the CF-18 pilots will be refuelled mid-air by their colleagues from 435 Squadron Winnipeg and 437 Squadron Trenton.
“Particularly when we get to some of the larger cities – like Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon – that’s where we’re going to be able to do some of our refuelling,” McLeod says. “We know that he’s going to be very preoccupied delivering presents to that many homes [close together] … one of our jets will be getting refuelling while the other one is monitoring over the city.”
“He’s going to be moving so fast from house to house, I have to be honest, we won’t be able to keep track of him,” McLeod admits, pointing out that Santa flies at a speed of one T – the twinkling of an eye – while his plane is limited to all the regular laws of physics.
“We’ll be doing everything we can to keep up with him from one large centre to another,” he admits. “His momentary stops on rooftops will be in a blink of an eye for us.”
Asked whether he's been a good boy this year, McLeod said, "absolutely."
NORAD says the escort is provided “as a matter of respect and courtesy,” not because of any specific operational concerns they’re prepared to disclose.
“Remember that Santa's been doing this a long time,” says Capt. Wright Eruebi, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Air Forces 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg. “He knows what he's doing.”
A separate news release issued by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s office Friday confirmed what many may have expected: Santa is a “well-known traditionalist” who “has not yet adopted GPS technology, preferring the instincts of his reindeer.”
Defence Minister Peter MacKay responded to CBC News' request for comment on this story in verse, which read in part:
"As Santa and the elves load up his sleigh, Canadian pilots and NORAD prepare to track his way.
The reindeer are quick led by Rudolph's red nose, so our pilots fly fast as everyone knows!
As our planes get close to make sure Santa's alright, his jolly laugh always warms up the night."
Read Peter MacKay's entire poem in tribute to the Canadian military volunteers who track Santa
The Harper government’s controversial purchase of replacements for the aging CF-18 fleet may give the Canadian pilots tasked with Santa’s escort duty even better tools to track Santa in the future, including stealth capability to keep from drawing too much attention to Santa’s flight.
NORAD spokespeople won’t comment on the replacement of the fighter jets, saying it’s of a “political nature.”
“I can assure you that Santa feels the same way,” Capt. Wright Eruebi, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Air Forces 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg. “He is happy to be escorted, no matter which aircraft we fly.”