Using GA Airplanes For the Common Good – The Surprising Missions of the Civil Air Patrol

Article appeared in Flying Magazine April 2019
by Martha King

Cadet Rachel Petro enjoys the tow and waits for release above Frederick Municipal Airport

The threat from Axis submarines prowling the East Coast of the United States was very scary and very real.  On-shore shelling terrorized civilians, but the real low-hanging fruit for the submarines was on the seas.  By as early as August of 1942 Axis submarines had caused the loss of thousands of lives, mainly merchant mariners, and sunk over 600 ships totaling more than 3 million tons.  Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

Flying enthusiast Gill Robb Wilson, who later became editor and publisher of Flying Magazine, saw how general aviation could help turn the tide.  The plan was to have private airplanes patrol the coast to spot submarines, which at that time had to spend most of their time on the surface.  Wilson took a leadership role in making it happen.  When asked why the German Navy withdrew operations off America’s coast, a German high seas admiral was quoted as saying, “It was because of those damned little…airplanes!”

Some 77 years later, Gill Robb Wilson’s “damn little airplanes” have become the Civil Air Patrol (CAP).  They are still being used to provide a myriad of services that can only be done with general aviation airplanes to the Air Force, and to communities throughout the United States.

As a current pilot you can use your hard-earned knowledge and skills to fly CAP airplanes for something far more rewarding than going for a hundred-dollar hamburger.  You won’t be paid for your flying, but on the other hand on missions you won’t have to pay for the cost of the airplane.

Since all CAP pilots, including instructors, are volunteers, any flight instruction you receive to get qualified for missions will be at no charge.  Your cost will be the fuel, and a flat maintenance fee which is much less than the normal rental rate.  The good news is you can fly the aircraft to keep current or get a new license or rating on the same terms.

The downside to all of this is that if your sole motivation is to get cheap flying, it won’t really work out for either you or the CAP.  There is a non-flying time commitment required.  Most CAP squadrons meet an average of two hours each week, with a specialty/training activity one to two weekends a month.  You will also have to pay dues.  And while you are flying, you will be expected to wear a CAP uniform—which, for the uniform-phobic, could consist of just a CAP polo shirt along with gray slacks and black shoes.

When the CAP recently asked me to serve on the Board of Governors, I was very honored, but at the same time embarrassed.  I realized that while I had seen CAP airplanes around airports for years, I really didn’t know much about the organization.  It was time for me to go to school on the subject, and study hard.  They gave me a head start by having John and me attend the National Conference in Anaheim.  It was like drinking from a fire hose.

I slowly began to get an idea of the magnitude of the Civil Air Patrol.  With 560 airplanes it is the largest general aviation fleet in the world.

A handful of those 560 airplanes

After my first board meeting, the CAP continued in their efforts to educate me.  They sent me to school at Maxwell Air Force Base, the home of the CAP, where I spent two days learning from managers about what their various departments were doing.  It was especially fun for me to be there since it is the same place my father went to school when he was in the Air Force.

First, CAP airplanes are used to support the U.S. Air Force by flying missions at a fraction of the cost that the Air Force would otherwise incur.  They are often used as interception targets for training fighter jet and helicopter pilots.  Plus, they are used to support Predator and Reaper drone operations.  For instance, they escort Predators in controlled airspace in order to provide the required see-and-avoid function until the Predators’ own see-and avoid capability is tested and proven.  Another drone-related mission involves equipping Cessna 182s with the sensors Predators and Reapers use.  That allows the Cessnas to function as surrogates for the drones in training the ground crews that operate them.

Interception training, or perhaps a race?

In addition to supporting the Air Force, the CAP responds to local community needs by conducting disaster relief and search and rescue operations.  With over 1,400 locations the CAP responds more quickly and nimbly after hurricanes, fires. and other disasters than would otherwise be possible, providing time-sensitive airborne imagery to FEMA for their relief efforts.  Plus, along with what the CAP calls “cell-phone forensics,” the fleet makes over 100 search-and-rescue saves per year.

It was at the National Conference that I first began to realize the extent to which CAP also works with cadets.  They use the fleet to inspire young lives by following up classroom and textbook learning with over 30,000 orientation flights to both CAP and ROTC cadets.

Cadets learn about robotics

In addition to weekly learning sessions, cadets also benefit from numerous field trips and annual week-long encampments.  Plus, the cadets receive training in many subjects such as computer technology and cyber defense that gives them a great head-start in their future learning.  As a result, CAP cadets make up about 10% of the Air Force Academy’s classes.

CAP also uses aviation expertise to reach out to local communities with aerospace education curricula for K-12 classrooms to generate interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers.  This program benefits about 300,000 students a year nationwide.

Cadets in the lab

All of this takes people.  The Civil Air Patrol has very few paid employees.  But as I have learned more about CAP, what has impressed me the most is the number and quality of volunteers.  There are some 60,000 volunteers who are deeply committed to making these programs work.  Many have enthusiastically donated their time and effort to the CAP for decades.

I am not sure why I was asked to be on the Board of Governors.  I like to think that maybe they were hoping my passion for flying and background in general aviation education and small business might provide some kind of special perspective.  In the meanwhile, I am learning a lot, and very much looking forward to being involved with a community that uses aviation in so many ways for the common good.

14 thoughts on “Using GA Airplanes For the Common Good – The Surprising Missions of the Civil Air Patrol

  1. John G. Horvath

    Martha,

    I am a nineteen year CAP member and have flown SAR, DR, photo recon, intercept missions, Reaper escort, and cadet orientation flights. Thank you for your article which is one of the most comprehensive and accurate I’ve see outside a CAP pubication.

    Respectfully,

    Lt Col John G. Horvath, CAP
    Director of Professional Development
    Massachusetts Wing

    Reply
  2. Milo Ketchum

    Martha,
    My dad was a squadron leader for tow target planes flying Culver cadets in WWII. He was also the navigator on a Flying Fortress that flew the “Hump”. On returning from Korea he was a long time CAP pilot out of Clarion Iowa. This is where I first learned to fly even as a kid. I have shared countless VHS King tapes from the early years of King Schools and several of the new DVD additions. This love for aviation has now spanned four generations.
    Thanks for your continued service to the special people that are never satisfied with a normal life!
    Most Respectfully,
    Milo Ketchum

    Reply
  3. Commander Anderson

    This is amazing story. And I have always been amazed by both John and Martha and your passion for flying, your intricate tenacity to teach flight study, and aeronautics, and love for the promotion of general aviation. Your lives enhance and enrich others with the same passions and pursuits, and give many a hope and love to endeavor to do what they’ve come to enjoy not only as a hobby, or work, but a passion to live their dreams. What an amazing couple you are, and may your lives always be blessed and may your passion for flight carry and take you beyond your wildest dreams. God bless you.

    Reply
  4. Kevin Malloy

    Way to go Martha! Great article! Delighted to see you helping the aviation world in yet another way! (I used your Sport Pilot course in getting my Sport Pilot license in 2015 and thoroughly enjoyed the videos. I now own/fly a 1946 Aeronca Champ.)

    Reply
    1. Pilot One Post author

      Thank you for being our customer. We love to hear stories about our seasoned pilots who are still flying.

      Reply
  5. Kathryn Hunt

    Thank you, Martha, for this article and to you and John for such devotion to aviation. My dad was the first of four generations of family in CAP. He flew those missions that helped protect our New England coastline during WWII. His love of aviation along with his commitment to CAP has been a strong force for good in so many ways. The aviation “bug” finally caught up with me at age 68 and thanks to King Schools, I received my private pilot certificate last year!!

    Reply
    1. Pilot One Post author

      Your perseverance and accomplishment are truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing the story.

      Reply

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