Holiday Flight Tracking

'Tis the season for some flight tracking

By Simon Vaughan

Santa isn't the only traveller many of us track this time of year. Here are some of the best ways to monitor flights—and jolly men in red suits.

On top of a hill on the edge of town in Iqaluit, Nunavut, sits the remnants of an old DEW Line radar station overlooking Frobisher Bay. At one time, the aging and now weather-ravaged structures were cutting-edge technology, manned 24 hours a day by NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and forming an integral part of the frontline in the Cold War. Today, however, the skeleton of this former Distant Early Warning Line station is sun-bleached and wind-scarred and more likely to be visited by the shadows of mournful ravens than long-range enemy bombers.

The ghosts of stations similar to Iqaluit's stretch across Canada's north as well as those of Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Rising out of the flat tundra often in areas that seem to have barely been visited by humans never mind ever actually settled by them, they are incongruous sights for the few visitors who stumble across them today.

The stations were built in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War when fear of Nuclear War was an ever-present feature of daily life. It was believed that should the Soviet Union send their long-range bombers laden with nuclear weapons towards North America, they would come over the North Pole and south through the Arctic. At the time, the DEW Line was one of several similar systems and hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs it was to watch out for travellers from the north. Although that particular threat is less today than it was half-a-century ago, to this day every December 24th millions of small people across the world still keep an eye out for one particular visitor from the north, all with the assistance of NORAD.

In December 1955, a Sears Roebuck advertisement appeared in a U.S. newspaper inviting children to dial a telephone number to speak to Santa. Unfortunately, the number was misprinted and the calls ended up at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) in Colorado Springs. Once the base realised the error, they played along and even went so far as to use their Cold War defences to aid the children by tracking Santa on his journey from the North Pole, an annual task that NORADCONAD's successorcontinues to this day, complete with their own website www.noradsanta.org and their own apps.

Santa isn't the only person whose travels are tracked at this time of year. Whether travelling ourselves or eagerly awaiting visiting family or friends, many of us spend the Holiday Season tracking flights to know whether they're on-time, early or late. Most airlines have their own websites and mobile apps that allow arrivals and departures to be monitored as do many airports, but my own particular favourite is FlightAware.

Being an unabashed, self-proclaimed travel geek, when I fly I like to know all the specifics. I want to know what type of aircraft I am on, what my air speed and altitude are and my route. For a while when travelling to the U.S. on business, I would go out of my way to fly on United Airlines simply because their onboard entertainment system had an audio channel that enabled me to listen to the communications between my aircraft and air traffic control (ATC). Combine that with the video Air Map, and I was one happy aerial camper: not only could I follow my course, but I could hear my aircraft being handed off from ATC to ATC and being instructed to change direction or altitude to avoid turbulence or weather.

The FlightAware website not only allows you to monitor arrival and departure times so that you know precisely when your visitors are due to arrive, but it actually plots their entire course. From the comfort of your home while performing the sort of intense house-cleaning reserved for mothers and extra-special guests, you can use the Air Map to watch them slip across the Alps, pass over the French coast, nip south of Ireland and head out across the Atlantic. While you're changing the sheets in the guest bedroom, they're making landfall over Newfoundland and when they begin their approach just west of Ottawa, you know it's time to jump in the car and head to the airport.

Unfortunately, FlightAware doesn't yet show you Santa's exact route as that's still highly classified. However, the NORAD website and app will provide you with the official Santa Tracker Countdown which should be enough to keep children of every age happy as they place the cookies and milk beside the tree.


Simon Vaughan is a Senior Writer/Editor & Special Travel Advisor for Outpost. Alongside special reports and travel features you can find Simon’s voice in his super-mega-funny Local Knowledge travel stories in Outpost Magazine every issue.  Don't miss each of Simon's articles over at Simon Says Travel.


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