CAP's COVID-19 response leveraged its fleet of more than 550 Cessna 172 and 182 aircraft. CAP Colorado Wing Commander Col. John Rhoades ferried personal protective equipment to remote hospitals in May. Civil Air Patrol
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Putting the CAP on COVID-19

Dec. 1, 2020

How Civil Air Patrol rallied to the nation’s call in the face of a global pandemic.

Civil Air Patrol has been coming to the nation’s rescue in one form or another since its founding about a week before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force helps assess damage after natural disasters, assists with domestic search and rescue operations, and helps the Air Force train for intercepts in the National Capital region. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the nation called once again, CAP volunteers were ready. From March through October—and beyond—CAP logged its second-longest campaign in its history, paling only to its response in World War II.

“As of [Oct. 26] we have had more than 4,800 CAP members participate in this mission and we are standing at 33,449 volunteer days of duty since we began back in early March,” said Lt. Col. Rick Woolfolk, who oversees the organization’s daily COVID-19 response reports, in a statement provided to Air Force Magazine.

CAP’s COVID-19 response up to then included at least 1,406 air sorties, 3,688 ground sorties, 9,918 photographs, and involved 555 aircraft and 2,597 ground vehicles, according to CAP data. 

Flying missions include deliveries of personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 test kits and samples, and other medical supplies. In one wing’s case, they even transported a person: a leader from the Colorado Hospital Association who used PPE-delivery flights as an opportunity to touch base with health care workers on the ground to help formulate a pandemic-response playbook. 

CAP’s COVID-19 response leveraged its fleet of more than 550 Cessna 172 and 182 aircraft. CAP Colorado Wing Commander Col. John Rhoades ferried personal protective equipment to remote hospitals in May. Civil Air Patrol

The organization used its ground vehicles to deliver PPE, as well as to transport meals to locations where suspected COVID-19 patients were being quarantined.

“Pretty much all of the aircraft being used are … common fleet aircraft, predominantly Cessna 182s, as far as the  missions go for the airborne reconnaissance, and then we actually used our Gipps [Aero] GA8s and some Cessna 206s to do some of the transportation missions,” said CAP Director of Operations John Desmarais.

But CAP’s National Commander Maj. Gen. Mark E. Smith said the auxiliary’s 66,000 members, “folks wanting to get out of the house and go out and make a difference in their local communities,” made the response possible. Here’s a look at some of the ways CAP responded.

Feeding the Hungry

COVID-19 left millions unemployed and entire communities hungry. CAP came to the rescue, delivering by ground vehicle over 900,000 tons of bulk food and more than 7,000 meals through late October.

The Indiana Wing started out helping the Marion Community Schools and the Department of Agriculture deliver food to the community, said Maj. Bill Vendramin, Great Lakes Region director of public affairs. Soon the drive expanded to include events at Lucas Oil Stadium (home to the Indianapolis Colts), the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Event partners included the Salvation Army and the Gleaners Community Food Bank, a Detroit-based organization that helps counter hunger in southeastern Michigan.

Cadet 2nd Lt. Camden Dorothy—a member of the wing’s 086 Squadron who completed 22 deployments to food banks and pantries and donated almost 100 volunteer hours as part of the response—said the missions boosted morale among cadets, giving them an opportunity to connect with other squadrons.

California Wing members packed millions of meals for public school students and Colorado Wing members volunteered with the Food Bank of the Rockies. The Arizona Wing partnered with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health to deliver prepared meals to people under quarantine, said Capt. Margot Myers, the Arizona Wing’s public affairs officer. The cadets’ deliveries filled a Public Health Department staffing need and kept quarantined individuals fed.

Delivering Medical Supplies 

When the pandemic triggered shortages of masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment across the U.S., especially in remote areas of the country, CAP flew to the rescue. “Wings have delivered over 580,000 medical gloves and … 50,000 face shields,” Woolfolk said, and helped process truckloads of equipment. 

Lt. Col. Mike Daniels, the director of public affairs for Colorado’s Wing, said CAP partnered with the Colorado Hospital Association, the state government, and others to distribute PPE for health care workers across the state. 

“We’ve flown well over 60 sorties,” Daniels said in September. “We’ve also done a number of ground sorties delivering PPE through our Civil Air Patrol vehicles and members on the ground.”

The Kansas Wing, meanwhile, flew supplies of the antiviral drug Remdesivir from central Kansas to rural hospitals in western Kansas, saving time over ground transportation, Woolfolk said. 

And CAP’s North Carolina Wing used its ground vehicles to transport PPE and other supplies from “state emergency management field warehouses” to destinations including nursing homes, wing Public Information Officer Lt. Col. Lynne Albert told Air Force Magazine.

“This turned out to be our most extensive ground-based operation in the North Carolina Wing’s history,” she said. “So we went in a completely different direction on this mission for COVID.”

The wing used all but two of its 27 vehicles for the tasking, and racked up over 50,000 miles on the road, she noted.

Holding Blood Drives

In Arizona, Civil Air Patrol partnered with the Red Cross to run emergency blood donation centers.

The wing had experience running such sites periodically, but when other sources shut down at the start of the crisis, CAP was able to answer some of the need. The wing offered facilities and volunteers and had six donation centers running by mid-September.

As of Oct. 25, the wing’s effort had amassed 1,054 units of blood.

Transporting Test Kits

By Oct. 25, CAP had transported 22,352 test kits and 99,921 test samples. 

Woolfolk credited the Texas Wing with spending nearly 1,200 flying hours transporting test kits to and test samples back from remote parts of the state so they could be processed in laboratories “in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and Dallas.”

Making Masks

The New Jersey Wing’s members and their families made more than 10,300 masks to give to people in need. CAP cadets accounted for 77 of the 127 volunteers involved in the effort as of Aug. 31. 

“By sewing masks for those who need them, I feel like I am helping more people than just myself,” said Cadet 2nd Lt. Alondra Rosas, a member of the Jersey City Composite Squadron, in a release. “The mission is a way for me to give back to the people who need help, because I know they would do the same if the occasion ever came up.” 

Elsewhere in the state, CAP members helped the River Road Rescue Squad in Piscataway Township put together more than 500 fluid-impervious gowns for use by emergency medical services personnel, a release said.

First Lt. Justin Ragsdale, an adult member of the Arkansas Wing’s 99th Composite Squadron, 3D-printed more than 400 holders for surgical-mask straps to make PPE more comfortable for health care workers in hospitals near Memphis, Tenn., CAP wrote.

Aerial Photography

CAP supported a number of agencies with aerial photography to provide situational awareness of crowds and traffic patterns at COVID-19 testing sites and food-distribution centers.

Getting Technical

Two Civil Air Patrol members also launched a radio network for volunteer operators to exchange situation reports (SITREPs) from the field. The so-called “Chicken Soup Initiative” was co-founded by 2nd Lt. Michele Bremer, CAP’s deputy head of national headquarters communications planning. 

“The initiative launched April 10 with 41 stations reporting,” the release stated. “Since then, more than 1,100 contacts from 162 stations have produced more than 600 location- and event-specific SITREPs.”

The North Carolina Wing also set up a virtual Incident Command Post—a Microsoft Teams-based hub where point people from various aspects of the wing’s COVID-19 response could stay in constant online collaboration—that eventually went “nationwide,” Albert said.

“Other people have emulated us, which just allowed us to just rock this mission,” she said.

The Way Ahead

Civil Air Patrol is in the midst of “a pivotal year” that could be “one of the most important” in its history, Smith said.

“The reason I say that is there’s just been a congruence of a bunch of different things that have come together at just this time, that it’s imperative for us to work and to work well over this next year, to really position and shape Civil Air Patrol for future success.”

These intersecting factors include:

  • “Transformational changes … ranging from business process re-engineering to budget team, to the volunteer experience.”
  • Fostering greater inclusion among CAP’s ranks in the wake of civil unrest that broke out across the country following George Floyd’s Memorial Day death in police custody.
  • Incorporating recommendations from a USAF-commissioned “independent study” of CAP to help it improve “as an organization.”

Heading into that with more fully prepared volunteers than ever before will help, Desmarais said.

Prior to the pandemic, he explained, the organization worried that remote training would cause a lapse in members’ qualifications, but the coronavirus pandemic instead drove up the number of volunteers qualified to support missions by approximately 5,000.

“This is the highest we’ve been in years,” he said.

And with all that activity and volunteering, CAP wings managed to escape serious infection. 

“Civil Air Patrol has not seen a high infection rate within our membership,” Headquarters CAP Public Affairs Manager Steve Cox wrote in an Oct. 28 email to Air Force Magazine. Testing is voluntarily and self-reported, but of 941 members known to be tested, only 149 tested positive nationwide.