Article appeared in Flying Magazine April 2019
by Martha King
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.