America’s Civil Air Patrol Enters Its Ninth Decade of Service

 

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Civil Air Patrol Poster

The United States’ Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is an organization tasked with diverse responsibilities. Although search and rescue (from the air and from the ground) takes a highly visible role, aviation training and humanitarian missions are also part of the equation that defines the CAP. Although this congressionally chartered, non-profit organization falls under the US Air Force as an auxiliary branch, it only takes on non-combat roles.

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In 2021, the CAP was credited with saving 108 lives. Some 56,000 volunteers supported operations, which included 92,375 flight hours. Part of these flying hours included 22,713 orientation flights for CAP and Air Force ROTC Cadets. This is no small operation that only meets once a month! In 2021, the 80th anniversary of the Civil Air Patrol was celebrated. Here’s some history and a bit about how the CAP functions today.

One week before the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941 which pushed the U.S. into World War II, the Civil Air Patrol was created by an Administrative Order by the Director of the Office of the Office of Civil Defense.

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Civil Air Patrol Photo

Since the late 1930s, aeronautical advocates foresaw civil aviation as a source of assistance for military aviation during crisis operations. The CAP was signed into existence by Fiorello LaGuardia, who was Director of Civil Defense, as well as Mayor of New York City (he also happens to have an airport named after him in New York City too). Civilians flying civil aircraft in the skies overhead the U.S. would fill voids left by Army, Marine, Coast Guard and Naval aviators – and their aircraft – which would be sent overseas in the anticipated world war.

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Artwork via Civil Air Patrol

One week later, the US was at war, and the CAP was quickly involved in the defense of the home front. A highly visible task was anti-submarine patrol and warfare, which ended with modified civilian aircraft flying some 24 million air miles during the war. Records indicate 173 enemy subs (on both East and West Coasts) were sighted, and 82 bombs or depth charges were dropped. Two enemy submarines were claimed as sunk, others possibly damaged. The reconnaissance of off-shore shipping lanes – vital to the war efforts – created a deterrent against German and Japanese submarines. Sixty-eight members lost their lives in accidents and during attacks during the War.

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Other duties that the CAP was ordered to perform included the transport of personnel and materials for other Armed Forces, and Border Patrol in Texas and Arizona. The still-important search and rescue duties took up much time too.

In 1946, General Hap Arnold convened a meeting of CAP leaders, and a plan for the organization’s future was drawn up. On July 1, 1946, Public Law 476 of the 79th Congress, second session was passed, officially incorporating the Civil Air Patrol. When the U.S. Air Force was born in 1947, the Civil Air Patrol became an auxiliary unit of the new branch. Three major missions assigned to the organization encompassed increase of Aerospace Education, both within and outside of their membership, a Cadet Program to attract future aviation professionals, and to perform Emergency Services. The Civil Air Patrol, by charter, would never be used in a combat situation again.

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Today, it operates as a 501(c)(3) organization. Headquartered at Maxwell AFB in Alabama, each state, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have Wings. There are eight regions, geographically defined. In 2022, the CAP operates 555 aircraft, and contains 56,000 volunteers trained for emergency service. This includes close to 6,000 members in aviation capacities. Ground search and rescue capabilities include a fleet of over 1,000 vehicles to move personnel to where they’re needed. A large network of ground-based HF and VHF radio repeaters is used for communication within the organization.

Search and Rescue duties make up a highly visible part of the CAP’s duties. Some of the CAP’s aircraft carry the ARCHER system (Airborne Real-time Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance) for searching for downed aircraft. Direction Finding equipment is still used, both airborne and on the ground, for finding Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) on aircraft, both in actual distress and during false alarms.

Other equipment includes digital scanners for photography and mapping like the SDIS (Satellite Digital Imaging System). In this role, and using these systems, two important uses of the CAP and its assets include flights after destructive Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast area, and for FEMA response on the day after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.

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Over the years, a wide range of aircraft have been used to support the CAP’s missions. During World War II, Stinson high-winged single engine aircraft joined Grumman amphibians, WACO and Beech Staggerwing Biplanes, and Piper Cubs as stalwarts in the coastal patrol missions. After the War, Ercoupe and Aeronca singles, Beech T-34s, North American T-6s and Beech C-45 twins were familiar sights, and later, Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs and U-3 “Blue Canoes”.

Here is a rundown of the main aircraft types within the CAP’s fleet in 2022:

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Cessna C-172 Skyhawk

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Cessna C-182 Skylane

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Cessna C-206 Stationair A larger Cessna useful for sensor operations

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GippsAero GA-8 Airvan The main platform for the ARCHER system

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DeHavilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver Still quite useful in Alaska!

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Maule MT-7–235s are used as glider tugs and other duties.

For flight training and familiarization flights, several gliders like the LET L-23 Super Blanik, Schleicher ASK-21 and Schweizer SGS-2-33s are used.

Other important programs of note include:

Orientation and flight training for Cadets
Participates in U.S. Air Force interceptor training missions
Performs low-level training route surveys for the Air Force
Provides community involvement with color guard and other opportunities
Provides STEM kits for schools
Provides “about 10% of each of the U. S. Air Force Academy’s classes” students
International Air Cadet Exchange Program
Awards college scholarships

So, as the Civil Air Patrol has entered its ninth decade of service, it carries a storied history and continues the important missions of education, discipline, and life-saving services for the U.S. Air Force and the United States. This is their 81st year, here’s to 81 more!

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