The Surprising Missions of the Civil Air Patrol

The CAP operates the largest general aviation aircraft fleet in the world.

Civil air patrol cadet taking her orientation flight in a CAP glider
A Civil Air Patrol cadet takes her first orientation flight in a CAP glider.Courtesy King Schools

The threat from Axis submarines prowling the East Coast of the United States was scary and very real. Onshore shelling terrorized civilians, but the real low-hanging fruit for the submarines was on the seas. By as early as August 1942, Axis subs had caused the loss of thousands of lives, mainly merchant mariners, and sunk more than 600 ships totaling 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 up a leadership role in making it happen. When asked why the German Navy abandoned operations off America’s coast, a German admiral was quoted as saying, “It was because of those damned little airplanes!”

Some 77 years later, Wilson’s “little airplanes” have become the Civil Air Patrol. They are still being used to provide a myriad of missions 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.

Because all CAP pilots, including instructors, are volunteers, any flight instruction you receive to get qualified for missions will be free of 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 also will 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.

Civil Air Patrol aircraft lined up on the runway
The Civil Air Patrol operates the largest general aviation fleet in the world.Courtesy King Schools

When the CAP recently asked me to serve on its 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.

The CAP gave me a head start by having me attend the National Conference in Anaheim, California. 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 its efforts to educate me. It sent me to school at Maxwell Air Force Base, the headquarters 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 because 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 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 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.

Besides supporting the Air Force, the CAP responds to local communities’ needs by conducting disaster-relief and search-and-rescue operations. With more than 1,400 locations, the CAP responds more nimbly after hurricanes, fires and other disasters than would otherwise be possible, providing time-sensitive airborne imagery to FEMA for its relief efforts. Plus, along with what the CAP calls “cellphone forensics,” the fleet makes more than 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 more than 30,000 orientation flights for both CAP and ROTC cadets.

Besides the weekly learning sessions, the cadets also benefit from numerous field trips and annual weeklong 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 percent of the Air Force Academy’s classes.

The CAP also uses its 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 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 the CAP, what has impressed me the most is the number and quality of volunteers: There are some 60,000 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 meantime, 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.