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Ever Wonder How It Really Happens?

Dec 6

In Stories at 5:24am


Ever wonder how a reindeer achieves aerodynamic lift? Or how many elves Santa actually employs? Who designed the sleigh? How many world leaders are actually informed about Santa’s flight path? (Closely guarded secret, mind you.) Why the North Pole, anyway? Do reindeer retire?

If these and other questions about Santa’s mythology circle through your head at this time of year, you might want to check out the 15th Anniversary Edition of the Flight of the Reindeer Did I say mythology? Hmmm…..might be time to reconsider that label.

As famed Polar explorer Will Steger relates in this tome, “Above us, gliding, were a hundred reindeer? Two hundred, five hundred! They coated the sky.” Please note, he said reindeer, not stars. Even staid Sir Edmund Hillary finally admits in Flight that he actually observed his companion Tenzing Norgay “placing some cookies and some chocolates…in the snow.” Figures, really. Highest point on the planet would be a good cookie break stop for the big guy in the red suit.

Seems that the author of this journalistic account of the actual how-to, behind the scenes look at Santa’s big night, Bob Sullivan, through exhaustive research via reliable sources found an entirely new species of reindeer, called Rangifer Tarandus Pearyi. It is from their ranks that the select few who fly the sled are chosen.

santastudyAt the last printing of the book, Bill Clinton was President, and in fact, as also reported by The Boston Globe on December 25, 1996:  “President Clinton signed an official proclamation this week ordering American airliners to be on ‘heightened alert’ last night as Santa Claus made his appointed Christmas Eve rounds. The President’s proclamation called on Transportation Secretary Federico Pena to ‘restrict all flight paths on all United States registered aircraft and all aircraft in or around the area of the North Pole on December 24th and 25th.’ The presidential action came in response to [information] that former President George Bush was quoted in a new book as saying that signing the Santa Clause executive order was among his finest moments in the White House  . . . In Clinton’s proclamation, the President instructed all pilots flying near the North Pole ‘to be on heightened alert for red sleighs traveling at an expected speed of 650 miles per second at a cruising altitude of approximately 30,000 feet.’


The book has beautiful illustrations, maps and photos. Which of course got me to thinking. They need photos? I called Sully, the author, and Glenn Wolff, the illustrator ( I figured they must have connections, like, an email, or a cell number)  and said, hey, please let them know up North I’m ready. I’ve worked a lot in Siberia, I’ve been backseat in tons of tactical aircraft, I’ve climbed stuff so I don’t fear heights, and I can work a camera pretty well. So, you know, after 35 years, I’m, you know, ready. They sent my request for media coverage to the North Pole, and I anxiously await. This is more nerve wracking than waiting for an Olympics credential to come through!

I sent my D3S cameras to Melville for clean, check and winterizing. Thankfully, shooting digital, ’cause when I used to try to load Kodachrome in the Arctic, the film leaders would just crack like crazy in my gloved fingers. Now–I got 32 gig Lexars. Figure a few of them will get me through. Put through a couple requests to position remotes as well. Whaddaya think lens-wise? Figuring two bodies, 24mm f1.4 for low light stuff. 14-24 for in close on the sleigh. 70-200’s gotta come. Fast 85? Probably smart. I know the big guy’s concerned about additional weight. (Kinda the pot callin’ the kettle, right? I’m just sayin’….) SB900 with an SD 9 bat pack. One flash. Lumiquest softbox. Couple warming gels, in case I get to do a blend with tree lights. Not going for remote flash stuff up there. Hot shoe stuff all the way. Throw in an SC-29 to get the light off the camera, but then what I am gonna hang on with, my toes? Might have to go straight flash, ride and shoot, ride and shoot. Gotta have at least one flash, though, ’cause all those chimneys are gonna be a bitch. Figure I’ll sling the whole mess in a Thinktank belt harness. Wave tool? Always handy, and Santa don’t do TSA.

This new printing is an anniversary edition, as I mentioned. Glad they brought it back, as it was a favorite for my kids back in their day. TIME for kids noted about the original:  “Little kids love stories about Santa’s flying reindeer, but maybe you’re ready for something more scientific. Now you can read the not quite down-to-earth facts in Flight of the Reindeer by Robert Sullivan, illustrated by Glenn Wolff. Sullivan interviewed reindeer experts, historians, flight specialists and other ‘Santa’s helpers’ around the world. Their eyewitness accounts of reindeer streaking across starlit northern skies are, well, unbelievable. Wolff’s beautiful, detailed drawings show how the aerodynamics of reindeer flight are like airplane flight. . . .Secret details of reindeer flight are revealed. Did you know that all U.S. Presidents sign a ‘Santa Claus clause’ directing planes to clear North Pole airspace on Christmas Eve? That Dasher was hyperactive as a fawn? That the team has been together for 2,000 years? (Except for rookie Rudolph-just 1,500 years.) There’s incredible, detailed history here. Sullivan seems to be full of it!”

They’ve got a Facebook page going for the book, and I think they’ll be posting fitness reports on this year’s reindeer crew.  I’ll let you know on the credential. More tk…..

lyle says:

on December 6, 2010 at 7:12 am


Rob Byron says:

on December 6, 2010 at 7:25 am

I hope you get this job Joe! Dress warm, f8 and be there! :-)

Annemarie Mountz says:

on December 6, 2010 at 7:56 am

If you get the gig and need a VAL, be sure to give me a call!

david says:

on December 6, 2010 at 8:57 am

If you need a VAL to stretch out that SC-29 just a bit farther than you can reach, sign me up. Always up for a sleigh ride!

Dave Silva says:

on December 6, 2010 at 10:37 am


I’m really looking forward to seeing your reindeer pics.

I’m thinking you could borrow from “Pride of Midtown” photos. Maybe a D700 clamped to a reindeer?

Available light should be pretty interesting. A lot of things glow at 600 miles per second. You know you’ll need a space suit?

The Fort Lauderdale workshop was ecellent. I learned a lot. THanks

Jay says:

on December 6, 2010 at 10:45 am

I knew those red and green lights I saw last Dec. 24th headin’ due south were no jetliner! Going way to fast, and way to small!!!

Go Santa, you are cleared for launch!

Merry Christmas to all..

Ken Wilder says:

on December 6, 2010 at 10:46 am

Love the blog, Joe! Who else would put so much thought into the Christmas Eve ride assignment . . . I hope you get it! ken

jacob says:

on December 6, 2010 at 11:06 am

Joe you are an inspiration, Thank you sir for your work, your blog and yourself. Come to Edmonton Alberta Canada, we need way more inspiration in the cold, “Kodachrome in the Arctic”..this is beginning of the cold, man this is where the winter gets good. lol
rock on! Have Fun!

DB says:

on December 6, 2010 at 11:23 am

Took a quick glance at the photo there, and got all hopeful this was another McNally title – “Light of the Reindeer”

Then I saw the F.

Win says:

on December 6, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Joe, you’re just too funny. This article made my day. Just let me know if you need an intern. North Pole is not too far from my location.

Cynthia says:

on December 6, 2010 at 5:01 pm

I LOVED this blog entry! You are the perfect guy for the job! Tell Santa I said “hello”!
I want that book too! I’ll bet sales are going to skyrocket now!

Deb Peluso says:

on December 6, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Melville!? I used to live there! To think, I was mere miles away from McNally’s cameras!

Simon says:

on December 6, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Joe, both those links are dead…

Ken Toney says:

on December 6, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Proves what I always thought, you ain’t right Joe! :)

Glenn Wolff says:

on December 7, 2010 at 9:50 am

Joe, Thanks for the kind words. You Got Reindeer Spirit! Trying to expedite your request now. -Glenn

Paul Wolff says:

on December 7, 2010 at 10:04 am

Don’t forget oxygen. Santa has trained for years, but just like playing Denver, you have to be used to it. Also, when your ears pop in the cold it really hurts. I’m just sayin’

Ruedi says:

on December 7, 2010 at 10:46 am

I think those antlers are just made for some Justin clamps …
Happy holidays from Bern, Switzerland

Mike Mulhisen says:

on December 7, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Flying around with a fat guy in a sleigh, taking pictures, and sliding down chimneys??!!! Joe, I think you’ve been nippin’ at the holiday cheer just a bit early this year!!! Happy Holidays to All!

Rich Charpentier says:

on December 7, 2010 at 11:40 pm

Very cool. Can’t wait to hear about this shoot!

Thanks for a great workshop in Phoenix! Great day indeed, plus the whole reindeer thing tonight just tops it!

Bogdan says:

on December 10, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Bought the last copy on…. sorry everyone !
It’s the perfect gift for my daughter who’s starting having doubts about all this Santa business.
This post made my day!!!


Peter MacDonald says:

on December 13, 2010 at 1:29 am

It’s a pleasure checking your blog from time to time.

It is always interesting, sometimes funny, informative and on one or two occasions it’s brought a tear to the eye.

For what it’s worth, I admire the thought that goes into each post, the writing style, the subject matter.

Thanks and merry Christmas.

taryn langemann says:

on December 15, 2010 at 11:06 pm

I’m going to look for this and put it away for Hanna P for when she’s older!

Leah Giselle Ogilvie says:

on October 2, 2011 at 5:17 pm

You guys are amazing. 😀
I received Flight of the Reindeer as an early Christmas gift from my late grandmother, a longtime Santa believer and Christmas fanatic. I was ten years old, in fifth grade, and had been raised by skeptics, despite being deeply mystical and spiritual. When I read the book around the winter solstice in 1995 (when it first came out) I was amazed…to think there was reality behind the ancient legend, not even Saint Nicholas, but an Elf, a real Elf, more real than Legolas or Dobby. Now almost sixteen years later at age 26, I have had several experiences of my own with the jolly old Elf, including hearing a loud (and I mean LOUD) scraping sound from the roof several Christmas eves in a row, finding possible reindeer hoof prints in my yard, and waking up between 2 and 4 am Christmas mornings for quite a number of years hearing something or someone scurrying about in my grandmother’s house well after she’d gone to bed. I honestly doubt that the government would pretty much put aside all their political and ideological differences to sign any document clearing US airspace on Christmas Eve if there was not actually someone flying around that night, not when they disagree on pretty much everything!

Wm Archuleta says:

on February 10, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Cheers :)

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