While most of the disaster personnel working at the command centers set up along the Gulf Coast to deal with the oil spill are on someone’s payroll, at least one desk is manned by highly trained, yet all-volunteer, members of the Civil Air Patrol. Every day CAP pilots are flying multiple missions over 700 miles of the Gulf’s coastline, mostly to take aerial photographs of the progress of the oil spill. A single CAP wing typically takes 3,000 photos each day of this crisis, and numerous wings are flying aerial reconnaissance missions. Photos taken by the CAP aircrews are encoded with GPS coordinates, as well as the date and time. Once they are delivered to the command centers, they are stitched together into panoramas and reviewed daily to help officials charged with handling the crisis to decide on their next moves; later the images will be crucial as a historical record of the worst environmental disaster this country has faced.
To date, CAP missions, as tasked by 1st Air Force, have been flown by members of the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina wings. In addition to aerial photography, CAP planes — which belong to one of the world’s largest fleets of single-engine aircraft — are used to fly VIPs over coastal waters to get a look at the integrity of oil containment barriers, to transport vital mission equipment and to collect data.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist lauded CAP as part of his state’s response team, which includes the Florida National Guard and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and Fish and Wildlife Commission. “I have asked our state team to use all available assets to proactively evaluate the potential areas of impact by air, land and sea,” Crist said. “This level of response can be done only by using these aggressive reconnaissance methods from first light each day until dark.”
In Mississippi, where the Mississippi Wing, has routinely patrolled the shorelines and barrier islands for more than two decades, Capt. David A. “Hank” Rogers, the wing’s emergency services officer explained, “Our proficiency in low-level, over-water operations is unique to many CAP flying units and has served us in good stead. We know the air traffic system, the local airports, the islands and their ecology.”
In Alabama, during only a 41-day period, CAP volunteers expended 6,065 man-hours, with aircrews in 22 aircraft, flying 284 missions totaling 677 hours in the air over the waters of the Gulf Coast.
“CAP’s extensive experience with aerial imaging used during disaster relief recon, along with being an economical asset, made CAP the logical organization to undertake this tasking,” said 1st Lt. Bill Weiler, Florida Wing Group 4 deputy commander and the wing’s officer in charge of emergency information. The average cost to fly a CAP aircraft runs $130 an hour, a fraction of the cost to operate military or privately-owned planes. Additionally, CAP’s single-engine aircraft, known for flying “low and slow,” are tailor-made for aerial reconnaissance.
Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, is a nonprofit organization with 59,000 members nationwide. CAP, in its Air Force auxiliary role, performs 90% of continental U.S. inland search and rescue missions as tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and was credited by the AFRCC with saving 72 lives in fiscal year 2009. Its volunteers also perform homeland security, disaster relief and counter-drug missions at the request of federal, state and local agencies. The members play a leading role in aerospace education and serve as mentors to the more than 24,000 young people currently participating in CAP cadet programs. For more information: GoCivilAirPatrol.com