The Citizen Air Fleet

June 1, 2003

Minutes after terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the FAA grounded most commercial and private aircraft. Outside the military, the only airplanes allowed to fly were those from the Civil Air Patrol.

“ It was us and the F-15s and F-16s,” CAP Maj. Gen. Richard L. Bowling, national commander, said in an interview with Air Force Magazine, “and that was it.”

That night, CAP members made 16 flights from Hanscom AFB, Mass., to New York City, delivering medical supplies. In the following days, CAP’s New York Wing flew twice-daily round-robin missions carrying personnel and materiel for the recovery effort. Wings in Louisiana and Texas helped the US Coast Guard provide port security. Units from New Mexico to Oregon and from North Carolina to California airlifted blood supplies, flew reconnaissance, and helped local authorities both in the air and on the ground.

Following 9/11, the Civil Air Patrol began to take a fresh look at what for CAP is an old mission—homeland security. Its leaders recently met with Tom Ridge, Secretary of the newly established Department of Homeland Security, to outline what CAP can bring to the mission, namely a nationwide structure of experienced volunteers with the largest privately owned fleet of single-engine aircraft in the country.

“ We can put one of those planes in the air for $90 an hour, as opposed to several thousand dollars an hour for military aircraft,” Bowling told Ridge.

CAP is working with the Air Force’s new Directorate for Homeland Security to incorporate new technologies into its operations. Some of those technologies include hyperspectral imaging, satellite digital radio, and thermal imaging and infrared sensors.

“ We have a request out right now to procure additional aerial platforms to use with these technologies so that we can disperse them across the country,” said Bowling, in the interview, adding that ground units will also be mounted in sport utility vehicles or vans. “That will serve as a great tool for the local communities that can’t afford those kinds of services,” he said.

Except for the new technology, CAP’s role in homeland security will be much like the one for which it was created.

The Early Days

The genesis for the Civil Air Patrol dates back to the late 1930s, when Europe was at war and the US was just beginning to build up its military strength. As the services concentrated on building warplanes and training aircrews, civilian air enthusiasts conceived plans to mobilize the nation’s general aviation resources to fill the gaps on the home front. The US had thousands of light airplanes and a cadre of private and commercial pilots, many of them not eligible for active duty but capable of other roles. It made sense to muster both for the war effort.

A strong advocate for such a program was Gill Robb Wilson, who had flown with the French air service and then the Army Air Service in World War I before becoming a clergyman and aviation writer and, later, director of aviation for New Jersey. Wilson convinced the New Jersey governor to create a statewide organization of volunteer pilots. Similar programs sprang up in other states.

By 1941, Wilson brought these efforts to the attention of the man President Roosevelt had named as America’s director of Civil Defense—Fiorello H. La Guardia, also mayor of New York City. The idea of a citizen air fleet appealed to La Guardia, who was a private pilot himself and also had served with the Army Air Service during World War I.

The Civil Air Patrol was established officially on Dec. 1, 1941, seven days before the US formally entered World War II. Operating under Civil Defense, CAP units soon were making courier flights, watching for saboteurs, helping border patrol agencies, and flying fire-watch missions.

In 1942, the organization allowed each adult member to sponsor one youngster to be a cadet. The idea was to hold down the numbers until leaders could develop a program in which young people could play an effective role, not merely become hangers-on. In many communities, units gave aviation cadets and prospective recruits their first orientation flights.

Within six months, more than 20,000 young people had joined. During the war, thousands of young men who were trained to fly by CAP later joined the Army Air Forces. Others contributed to the defense effort in the air and on the ground. Their record helped to convince Congress to support a peacetime cadet program.

From the beginning, women also have been a vital part of the Civil Air Patrol. During World War II, former barnstormer Jessie Woods not only flew with CAP but ran a private flying school. Nancy Hopkins Tier, veteran of numerous air races, flew patrols and became CAP’s first female wing commander. Margaret Bartholomew, commander of the Cincinnati courier station, was one of 64 aviators who lost their lives while conducting a CAP mission during World War II.

On April 29, 1943, the organization was transferred from Civil Defense to the War Department and put under the Army Air Forces. Assigned to coastal patrol, CAP pilots summoned help for 91 stricken Allied ships and spotted 173 enemy submarines. They bombed 57 U-boats and were credited with sinking two. In other roles, CAP towed targets for anti-aircraft trainees, flew search and rescue, hauled priority cargo, and ran courier missions.

At war’s end, most of the original civil defense machinery was dismantled, but the Civil Air Patrol had become too valuable to scrap. In 1946, Congress incorporated it as a private, benevolent nonprofit organization. Two years later, it became an official civilian auxiliary of the newly created Air Force.

The Structure

Though a civil organization, CAP does use Air Force rank and uniforms, regulation USAF clothing but with distinctive CAP insignia.

Top staff officers are appointed by the national commander and confirmed by CAP’s National Board, comprised of the six national officers, the senior Air Force advisor, and region and wing commanders. The national commander and vice commander are elected by the National Board.

Until recently, the commander and vice commander held the ranks of CAP brigadier general and colonel, respectively. Last December, however, the Air Force awarded Bowling a second star and made the vice commander, Dwight H. Wheless, a brigadier general.

The national commander appoints region commanders, all CAP colonels. The region commanders, in turn, name the wing commanders under them.

Membership consists of about 64,000 volunteers, about 60 percent of them senior members. Senior members may be promoted to grades through first lieutenant by their squadron commanders and to other grades by higher levels of authority. They serve without compensation, pay annual dues, and supply their own uniforms.

Today’s CAP cadets complete a more rigorous training program than their World War II counterparts. After initial training, they move through a 16-step program, earning increased rank and awards along the way. Many learn to fly, participate in encampments, and earn scholarships. The scholarship may provide for flight training or for study in such areas as engineering, science, aircraft mechanics, and aerospace medicine.

A CAP cadet who opts later to enlist in the Air Force enters as an Airman 1st Class, skipping two ranks. Hundreds of cadets have gone into either the Air Force, Army, or Navy military academies.

Bowling noted that several cadets have gone on to distinguished careers in the service. Retired Gen. Michael E. Ryan, former Air Force Chief of Staff, “is a CAP cadet,” said Bowling. “Notice that I didn’t say ‘former’ because once a cadet, always a cadet.” He added that the Air Force currently has four or five general officers “that are CAP cadets.”

The Civil Air Patrol, like the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and other military-connected youth programs, “serves as resources to help these young people develop and to mold the interaction and community service skills that they need to live,” said Bowling. “It is something of a recruiting tool, but they are not compelled to join the service.”

CAP’s resources include more than 3,700 privately owned aircraft, most of them belonging to members. Another 550, primarily single-engine Cessnas, are owned by the corporation. At one time, the organization received surplus airplanes from the Air Force; however, Bowling said that has dropped off because “what the Air Force has now is all kinds of high-end types.”

In February, the Civil Air Patrol announced it would buy airplanes from four companies under streamlined procedures to meet its new homeland security needs. CAP signed indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts with Cessna Aircraft Co., Maule Air, Inc., Luscombe Aircraft Corp., and Gippsland Aeronautics of Australia. CAP officials said the arrangements will allow the corporation to buy airplanes with specific capabilities for geographical locations and missions.

The CAP volunteers who supply their own airplanes get reimbursed only for operating expenses. “That’s it,” said Bowling. “They get fuel, oil, and maintenance at an Air Force rate determined by the category of aircraft.”

When Congress solidified the tie between the Air Force and the Civil Air Patrol through 2001 legislation, it also cleared the way for increased USAF support. (See “Reshaping the Organization,” p. 80.) Previously, for example, the Air Force could pay travel and per diem for CAP members only during a national emergency. Now, the service can provide such payment whenever they are performing Air Force missions.

The new law also paved the way for the Air Force to provide CAP with more equipment. Where the World War II CAP airplanes carried little more than radios and basic instruments, the modern fleet is being outfitted with an array of sensors, position finders, and reconnaissance tools comparable to some of the equipment in USAF’s own aircraft.

The Missions

The investment is well spent. CAP members fly approximately 85 percent of the search and rescue mission hours directed by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley AFB, Va. The Civil Air Patrol has been credited with saving hundreds of lives.

CAP also works for other federal government agencies, state, and local authorities. CAP’s charter for emergency services includes not only search and rescue but disaster relief.

When a hurricane hit Puerto Rico, CAP members worked with Red Cross shelter operations, flew damage assessment missions, and moved equipment. When floods made North Carolina roads impassable, electrical engineers flying on CAP aircraft surveyed damaged power lines. And when space shuttle Columbia went down, CAP units from Texas, Louisiana, and Florida joined the search effort and, later, helped locate debris scattered across several states.

Beginning in the mid–1980s, CAP also took on a major role in the war on drugs. It works in partnership with federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, US Customs Service, and US Forest Service and with state and local law enforcement officials.

Today, the Civil Air Patrol is uniquely positioned to play a major role in the new homeland defense effort. While the organization was little more than a concept in the days before World War II, the modern USAF auxiliary is a going concern with a wealth of assets.

It has not only the largest aircraft fleet in general aviation but some 1,000 ground vehicles, a network of 15,000 radios, and an array of airborne photography and sensor imaging devices. It also created a new National Operations Center. It can provide aerial reconnaissance, photography, radiological monitoring, and damage assessment at local levels that the military services do not have the resources to reach.

That local connection long has been key to CAP’s success. It began as a citizen-based group that kept watch over the nation’s scattered communities. Even after its transfer to the War Department, CAP retained much of that local touch. Today, when a region turns out to hunt for a lost child, cope with a flooded river, or respond to a tornado strike, often as not, CAP members will be part of the effort.

When Congress chartered the Civil Air Patrol in 1946, it directed the organization to help stimulate public interest in aerospace issues. To accomplish that mission, CAP works mainly through the established education system, providing textbooks and visual aids to teachers.

Each year, CAP also supports more than 100 workshops in colleges and universities and holds a national aerospace conference. Teachers are invited to take field trips and orientation flights and tour aviation facilities. CAP also works with high school Junior ROTC programs and community museums and science centers.

To make its educational materials more widely available, the organization formed partnerships with organizations such as the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, the National Aeronautic Association, and the Experimental Aircraft Association. Working with the Aerospace Education Foundation of the Air Force Association, it offers grants to CAP educators and units. It also has placed many of its education products on the CAP Web site.

The organization’s education charter, of course, extends to its own membership. It offers education programs for both adult members and cadets at all organizational levels. Classes cover aviation, weather, and space-related subjects, supplemented with hands-on activities.

Cadets attend encampments, take field trips, hear guest speakers, build model airplanes, rockets, and spacecraft, and make orientation flights. A recent update in the program introduced new textbooks for cadets and adopted a program of modular training units covering subjects such as principles of flight, aerospace history, rockets, and spaceflight. Senior members follow a self-paced aerospace program and take leadership courses.

All members now can take much of their training on the Internet. Bowling said the Web–based program provides individuals with “immediate feedback as to what they have done right, what they have done wrong, and where they need additional training.”

USAF’s Air University helps to develop many of the materials used in distance learning or on-site by CAP instructors. It also provides in-residence training in CAP’s Commanders’ Familiarization Course and National Staff College.

The resurgence of an intense homeland defense mission has called for CAP to reinvigorate some old training, as well. “We are beginning to knock the dust off of some of our old radiological training,” said Bowling. “We need to update our skills there. Our members have been given some cursory training in that, but it is one of those things that as new missions develop, training has to be there so that we can do it safely and professionally.”

Since 9/11, the Civil Air Patrol has had about an 18 percent increase in membership, noted Bowling. This boost has helped fill the gaps created when some members who are active duty or reserve military personnel have been deployed or mobilized.

CAP also has been stepping up its recruiting efforts. Like the Air Force, it now sponsors a race car and advertises in various markets.

“ We’re getting a lot more national exposure,” Bowling said. “We’re trying to come out of the shell as the Air Force’s best-kept secret.

Bruce D. Callander is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. He served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War and was editor of Air Force Times from 1972 to 1986. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Curtain Up on Force Development,” appeared in the February issue.