The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is the volunteer civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force (USAF), created on 01 December 1941, during the Second World War. At inception, CAP members flew light twin- and single-engine civilian aircraft to provide littoral aerial convoy surveillance, search and rescue (SAR), towing targets, aerial courier services, and forest fire reporting, making it invaluable in freeing up US Army and Navy aircrews and aircraft for the war effort. For their service, CAP members were collectively awarded a US Congressional Gold Medal in 2014. Following the war, in accordance with the 1947 National Security Act, CAP became the official auxiliary of the newly formed US Air Force. As the Air Force’s auxiliary, CAP is mandated by the US Congress as a federally charted 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation with three core missions: aerospace education, cadet programs, and emergency services. The emergency services mission is open to all 56,000 active CAP professional volunteers, organized into 52 wings, divided into eight regions, and is most associated with the patrol, hence CAP’s motto: ‘Semper Vigilans’ (always vigilant).
Emergency services mission
CAP’s emergency services mission is one of the most diverse and important of the organization’s three missions. It owns a fleet of 560 aircraft that are mostly light Cessna single-engine aircraft (CAP is the largest user of Cessna aircraft in the world), 1,000 ground vehicles (vans and sports utility vehicles (SUVs)), and a national network of very-high frequency and high frequency ground and mobile radio stations. CAP uses these resources, along with the highly trained volunteer members, to respond to a variety emergency services missions assigned by the US Air Force Air Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC), Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. CAP’s area of responsibility covers the entire continental USA including Alaska, and Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. CAP’s remit for emergency services includes search and rescue (SAR), disaster relief, humanitarian services, and US Air Force or interagency support. CAP missions are assigned on a case-by-case basis for the assigned funded US Air Force missions. Local CAP commanders may provide support to local state emergency management agencies with the approval of CAP National Headquarters, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
Search and rescue
CAP’s well known SAR mission constitutes three quarters of all aerial inland search missions directed by AFRCC. CAP is credited with saving an average of 100 lives per year using air and ground searches. The foundation of CAP SAR techniques and training comes from the CAP’s National Emergency Services Academy (NESA) at the Indiana Army National Guard’s Camp Atterbury, Indiana. NESA not only writes and publishes CAP’s official SAR standards, which are in accordance with Federal Emergency Management standards, but also hosts a six-day emergency services training academy at Camp Atterbury, as well as six weekend training programs at the US Air Force Vigilant Warrior training site (a sub-installation of Maxwell Air Force Base). CAP also runs other emergency services training programs like the Hawk Mountain Ranger School, Kempton, Pennsylvania, specializing in high angle rescues and the Mid-Atlantic Region SAR College at the Virginia Army National Guard’s Camp Pickett, Blackstone, Virginia, focusing on incident management team training. Additionally, individual CAP air, communications and ground units conduct local, wing and regional SAR exercises, working with local interagency organizations to maintain individual and collective proficiency.
CAP also runs other emergency services training programs like the Hawk Mountain Ranger School, Kempton, Pennsylvania, specializing in high angle rescues and the Mid-Atlantic Region SAR College at the Virginia Army National Guard’s Camp Pickett, Blackstone, Virginia, focusing on incident management team training.
CAP is active in disaster relief operations, especially in areas such as Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana – regularly struck by hurricanes – and Oklahoma and Texas – frequented by large, damaging tornados. It also supports the states of California and Hawaii with both forest fire imaging and tsunami warning flights. CAP aircrews and ground personnel provide transportation for cargo and officials, aerial imagery to aid emergency managers in assessing damage, and donations of personnel and equipment to local, state, federal and non-profit disaster relief organizations during times of need. In 2004, several hurricanes hit the southeastern coast of the USA, with Florida being the worst damaged; CAP was instrumental in providing help to the affected areas. Additionally, CAP imagery was recently used to brief the President of the USA on the damaging wildfires in Maui, Hawaii.
CAP also assists the US Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary with their inland waterway and coastal rescue missions
CAP conducts humanitarian services missions, usually in support of the Department of Homeland Security, American Red Cross, and state emergency services agencies. CAP aircrews and drivers transport time-sensitive medical materials – including blood, human tissue, and vaccines – when other means of transportation are not available. It also assists the US Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary with their inland waterway and coastal rescue missions. An example of an intervention when CAP was called upon is when it supported first responders following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City after all general aviation was grounded. More recently, in 2020, 160 officers, non-commissioned officers and cadets (over 18 years of age) from Alabama Wing performed 82 air sorties (over 100 flight hours) and 27 ground sorties (2,617 miles driven) without a single reportable accident or incident, delivering over 4,000 Covid-19 test kits to locations across the state and returning over 2,000 used and 2,200 unused test kits to University of Alabama Birmingham’s Medical Center.
The future of CAP’s emergency services mission is bright, not only with the current air and ground capabilities, but
Many local and state first responder agencies are exclusively requesting CAP CPF
with the greater use of CAP’s Cell Phone Forensics (CPF) program and National Radar Analysis Team (NRAT), and integration of small uncrewed aerial systems (sUAS) platforms. Of the former, CAP has been conducting CPF for AFRCC since 2006. With this capability, AFRCC/CAP can provide forensics support for SAR missions like assigning CAP air/ground teams and other military resources. The CPF program started as a last-resort tool for locating missing persons and overdue aircraft but has now become a primary resource. Many local and state first responder agencies are exclusively requesting CAP CPF. The NRAT program is a nationwide program of CAP members who analyze data from Federal Aviation Administration feeds and open-source aircraft tracking websites with algorithms to determine the location of a missing aircraft. Last year the NRAT program, at the direction of AFRCC, was responsible for nine saves across the country. Finally, CAP also boasts the largest sUAS program in the USA. According to the CAP operations website, Illinois Wing was one of the first five units in the nation – in 2016 – to adopt this exciting program, acquire drones and begin training remote pilots. CAP’s sUAS platforms provide capabilities that include remote aerial imaging (predetermined search patterns or ad hoc), forward-looking infrared (FLIR) thermal imaging for locating missing persons/vehicles, aerial radio direction finding (frequency/mode agile), and orthophoto mosaic imaging of both large- and small-scale mapping (down to six-centimeter resolution). All of its sUAS platforms meet US Department of Defense requirements for security and interagency integration. Growth and development are a part of the plans for CAP going ahead, Ron Olienyk, CAP National Director of Operations and 14-year CAP veteran, explained: “The path forward for CAP emergency services in the 21st century is to increase our FLIR capabilities and to link that information via live video feeds during SAR and disaster relief operations to better support our Federal Emergency Management Agency, state, and local partners.”