CAP a decade after 9/11


The buzz of the Cessna 172’s engine seemed an intrusion on the absolute quiet of Manhattan’s crystalline blue skies. In fact, the tiny Civil Air Patrol plane, tail number N9344L, was one of the few aircraft aloft that afternoon in all of America. It was Sept. 12, 2001 — the day after the country was rocked by terrorist attacks, when the phrase “9-1-1” took on a whole new meaning.

Departing Islip’s Long Island MacArthur Airport, the CAP plane was piloted by Lt. Col. Jacques Heinrich and also carried Lt. Cols. Andrew Feldman and Warren Ratis, who both held the rank of captain at the time. Feldman described his role as a mission specialist, while Ratis’ primary job was to document the destruction of the World Trade Center site with aerial photographs. Ratis recalled their mood as very somber, very determined.

As they approached Manhattan, they were surprised to be challenged by a New York City Police Department helicopter, whose advance notice of the CAP mission had been stalled in the chaos. Ratis, who was working the radio, responded, “We are on a mission approved by the U.S. Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration, and we intend to complete it.” Ultimately, the challenge was handled by Kennedy Approach, which told the police that CAP was not only authorized to be there, but, in fact, had more authority than they did.

The CAP flight, requested by both New York’s then-Gov. George Pataki and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and subsequently approved through the Pentagon, “provided the first direct aerial perspective of the disaster site for the state of New York. The photos were the first images we’d seen looking down on the site and showed debris on top of buildings and damage to rooftops,” said Dan O’Brien, graphic information program manager at the time for the New York State Emergency Management Office. O’Brien’s agency superimposed street grids over the better-quality photographs so emergency workers on the ground, working in a desolated and convoluted landscape, could understand where they were standing. The photos also were sent to the White House and Pentagon for further analysis.

The Cessna made three passes overhead, one at 2,000 feet and two at 1,300-1,500 feet. Acrid smoke was evident as far out as a half-mile from the World Trade Center site. “We did several concentric circles of the site, getting closer each time,” Ratis said. “We stayed clear of the smoke plume emanating from the wreckage since we were not sure if it contained any hazardous materials — a good idea, as it turned out.”

Feldman said one of the first things the aircrew noticed was a white powder covering everything for a radius of up to 10 blocks. “It appeared like snow,” he remembered, “but then reality set in. It was plaster dust, ground-up concrete and crushed fluorescent tubes.”

“You have to know I really admired and loved those towers,” recalled Ratis, who only months before had left a job in an office on the first tower’s 79th floor. “Besides the amazing view, everything was there. Of course, I had watched video coverage of the attacks and assumed some of my friends and former coworkers had not survived — which turned out to be the case.”

“Even though I was a witness to the shelling and bombardment during World War II to liberate France from the Nazis,” Heinrich said, “I was shocked to see the senseless and unprovoked magnitude of the attack on our shores.”

All three of the men aboard that historic flight are still CAP members today. Heinrich remains an active mission pilot for the New York Wing’s Long Island Group. Feldman advanced through CAP’s ranks to become first the director of communications for the Northeast Region and now the moderator of the National Repeater Coordinating Group as well as a member of the National Communications Team.

While Ratis retains his affiliation in the New York Wing’s Long Island Group, he acknowledged, “That day had a profound influence on my life.” It even led him to take a new career path: He now works as a law enforcement officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, where he lives homeland security on a daily basis.

Based at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, N.Y., he is also a member of the National Mobile Response Team, which travels the U.S. in the event of a disaster or a focus on terrorism or drug trafficking. “The answer,” he said, “to how 9/11 affected me is one simple word — completely.”

The decision to turn to CAP the day after Sept. 11 was based on trust and capabilities. For the most part, military aircraft fly too fast to capture quality photographs from the air. The typical airspeed for one of CAP’s small planes, however, is 80-100 knots, very conducive to the job at hand.

Moreover, CAP volunteers had begun to accumulate some experience with aerial photography. At that time, across the country some 100 CAP members were trained to take aerial photos.

Finally, CAP was a prudent choice financially. The average price for flying a CAP plane is $150 per hour, compared to thousands for military and commercial aircraft.

That first CAP flight was one of approximately 40 that Col. Rick Greenhut would dispatch in response to Sept. 11. Having just assumed the command of CAP’s Northeast Region two weeks before the attacks, Greenhut was forced to set up his command post at FEMA’s regional center in Maynard, Mass., after finding himself without phone service in Manhattan because all area phone lines were routed through the World Trade Center complex.

In the days that followed, Greenhut and other CAP leaders sent members on flights to transport blood, medical supplies and government officials; to provide risk assessment of critical infrastructure and waterways; and to take more digital photographs and video from the air. Among the equipment CAP helped transport was supplies for robots used by the U.S. Army at the disaster sites and 30 donated Bose noise-cancelling headsets, valued at $1,000 each, for use by urban search teams.

Members also assisted on the ground, helping man communications at local airports tapped to accept commercial flights and at various emergency management agencies. CAP chaplains, meanwhile, offered comfort and follow-up counseling to the victims’ families.

“Immediately following 9/11 the door was wide open for agencies to work with each other in defending our shores,” Ratis said. “Many organizations jumped in and are providing these services.”

“Our National Operations Center was not the nerve center it is today,” said Malcolm Kyser, CAP’s chief of operations support, “but our entire mission profile has changed, and the fulcrum was 9/11.”

His co-worker, Terry Raymond, chief at the NOC, remembered the old days. “CAP’s work was mostly search and rescue with a little disaster relief thrown in, handled mostly at the state level.”

Raymond and Kyser were both working for CAP operations at the time of the terrorist attacks, along with John Desmarais, now CAP’s deputy director of operations. All three have been witnesses to a NOC transformation.

“After 9/11,” Desmarais said, “lots of resources came our way, like the grant CAP received for its narrowband (radio) transition. Perhaps most importantly, our leaders at the time set the tone, willing to take on more responsibility and do it right.”

Just a few months after Sept. 11, CAP provided major support to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, flying over 100 sites three times each day to verify they were secure. Other large-scale homeland security missions for CAP since those days have included responses to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Gulf oil spill last year.

Today, the organization is routinely active in missions that include serving as targets for military training; assisting with drug enforcement and border patrol; and providing aerial surveillance over waterways and critical infrastructure.

CAP has especially seen a significant increase in demand for its aerial photography, which got a workout in 2010 when members took literally thousands of digital images in response to the oil spill. At the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, aerial photography for CAP was in its infancy, with a very limited number of knowledgeable members. Today, several thousand are trained in this field.

The modern National Operations Center can now deliver a true national response, according to CAP officials.

All missions are tracked by WMIRS, CAP’s Web Mission Information Reporting System. More than half of CAP’s aircraft fleet is configured with camera windows.

Following the lead of national emergency agencies and the military, CAP has standardized training so its members can slot easily into a larger mission involving many other entities and with the same level of professionalism.

But the key has been CAP’s recognition by the Department of Defense, including its integration into Air Force North’s daily flying operations.

None of this was the case before Sept. 11.

Greenhut, who later became CAP’s first national director of homeland security, had the final word.

“I believe our performance in the aftermath of 9/11 cemented CAP’s credibility with the government and the military, changing the very tenor of our organization so that CAP is now recognized as a very capable, cost-effective and reliable asset for the protection of America.”

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