12/21/2012 02:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

5 Fun Facts About Flying With Santa

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Although we welcome Santa into our homes and hearts this time of year, carefully choosing his favorite cookies (chocolate chip, despite the ongoing snickerdoodle rumors) and waxing eloquent on the magic he uses to shove his girth into the chimney, we know very little about Santa in his role as aviator.

Sure, Santa's been flying for years. He's one of the original aviation pioneers, after all. But specific information about how he coordinates his flights and manages his crew has been in short supply. Despite NORAD's very cool Santa Tracker, scientifically-minded kids want to know more. How does Santa navigate from place to place? By what means does he avoid mid-air collisions? And what does Santa do about safety?

To that end, former Marine Corps aviator and retired commercial airline pilot, Ian D. McDonough, who flew many, many Christmas Eve nights, agreed to give us the insider's scoop on Santa the aviator and what's actually going on up there.

Five Fun Facts About Flying with Santa
courtesy of Captain Ian D. McDonough (Ret.)


  1. Waypoint Navigation: Although Santa relied for years on older means of navigation, he recently switched to use all GPS waypoint navigation. Waypoints are identified with five letters, e.g. SANTA, CHMNY, RUDLF, SLEHY, etc. Unfortunately, several waypoints required immediate change due to the fact that Santa became distracted by those which were food-related like MILKE and COOKY. Oddly, CAROT provided no difficulty and was allowed to remain the same. (Did you know you can use your parents-only hotline to call the North Pole for your five-letter waypoint? You can! Santa's Workshop has permission to release this information.)
  2. Risk of Mid-air Collision: Air traffic control is not an issue for Santa's aircraft. Santa flies all profiles above FL600 (that's 60,000 feet above mean sea level) which is outside of controlled airspace. Understandably, this saves Santa a tremendous amount of time since he doesn't have to clear take-offs and landings. Mid-air collisions with other aircraft are avoided during the brief transits between the surface and FL600 by the reindeer's whiskers (they're very sensitive) and exceptional sense of smell. Pilots need never worry about hitting a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer while flying on Christmas Eve.
  3. Seatbelt Requirement: Santa is exempt from FAR 91.105 (a) (2), the Federal Aviation Administration's seatbelt requirement. All that jumping in and out of the sleigh makes wearing a traditional seat belt ridiculous. However, the same magic Santa uses to avoid falling down chimneys and off of roofs -- an intricate, invisible, 12-point harness system developed by rock-climbing elves -- is always in place.
  4. Flying at Altitude: Obviously, Santa and his crew have to take into consideration their abrupt ascents and descents into thin air and extreme temperatures. The reindeer regulate their temperature with thick coats of fur. Santa, wrongly maligned for his weight, uses his layer of blubber like a seal or a walrus, trapping heat which allows him to acclimatize to quick temperature changes. Oxygen requirements are a bit more tricky which is why the sleigh and reindeer harnesses were retrofitted several years ago with a state-of-the-art oxygen masks. Donner hates wearing his oxygen mask but does so because he doesn't like it when all the other reindeer laugh and call him names. Santa, incidentally, always remembers to don his own oxygen mask before assisting others.
  5. Rudolph and the Myth of the Foggy Night: Urban legends take on a life of their own and tend to be accepted in popular culture as truth, so it may surprise you to learn that Rudolph was not added to the reindeer flight team because of a "foggy night." That's pure romanticized fiction. In fact, Rudolph was made part of the team when Santa agreed to voluntarily comply with a 1939 CAA (Civic Aeronautics Authority -- precursor of the FAA) mandate that all aircraft flying at night display a red "anti-collision" light. Rudolph's red nose has now been replaced with a white strobe light. The flashing strobe made Dasher nauseous, which is why he was moved to the back of the trace and Blitzen replaced him up front.

A version of this post was originally published at the Five Kids Is A Lot of Kids blog which can always be found at waypoint: CHAOS.

"santa claus and deer" image credit suphakit73 at