By Victoria Cavaliere
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Santa Claus has made an on-time departure from the North Pole, at least according to a U.S. military command that has made it a tradition to track the progress of Santa's reindeer-guided sleigh for millions of children.
Santa was "sticking to the same flight plan as he provided us," Lieutenant Commander Bill Lewis, stationed at the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said on Tuesday.
For nearly 60 years, NORAD has tracked Santa's flight path in a popular Christmas tradition that last year drew 22.3 million visitors to its website www.noradsanta.org and generated 114,000 calls.
NORAD says it can keep up with Santa's swift pace by using satellites and an "infrared sensor to detect heat signatures from Rudolph's nose," as the lead reindeer helps pull Santa's sleigh across the sky.
This year, NORAD said it was sending animated warplanes alongside the sleigh, a move that drew criticism from some child advocates who said children might worry if they believed Santa was vulnerable to attack.
NORAD says it began depicting jets following the sleigh in the 1960s and the planes would only be deployed to help Santa enter North American airspace. He would then be "on his own to do his work" Lewis said.
The Santa tracking tradition started in 1955, after Sears Roebuck & Co ran a Christmas advertisement in a newspaper accidentally misprinting Santa's North Pole phone number with the contact number of a high-level office at NORAD.
Instead of disappointing the first child who called, Colonel Harry Shoup said he was indeed Santa Claus and took a list of Christmas gift requests from the young caller.
After hundreds more calls from children that day, NORAD's Santa tracking mission was born.
"I think it's just marvelous," said Terri Van Keuren, Colonel Shoup's daughter, of the yearly tradition that grew from telephone calls and radio reports in the 1960s and 1970s into website and video animation over the past decade.
Her father was "tickled pink he could see the results of it before he died," she said. "He became known in the military as the Santa colonel," she said.
(Reporting By Victoria Cavaliere; editing by Gunna Dickson)
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