When the government’s fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2017, the Civil Air Patrol hit a milestone, flying 100,000 flying hours for the second year in a row.
In fiscal 2016, CAP flew 104,525 hours — the highest in the last few years.
What fueled those high flying numbers?
While some missions may not be a surprise — including the rush of hurricane-related flying towards the end of the fiscal year — other missions are not what most of us traditionally consider when we think Civil Air Patrol.
CAP officials didn’t really expect to hit 100,000 hours this year, that is until August when hurricanes battered Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
According to John Desmarais, Civil Air Patrol’s director of operations, the milestone was met during a flight Sept. 28, 2017, in Puerto Rico, in which a CAP aircrew was collecting photos of damage from Hurricane Maria.
“We would normally only fly 1,500 to 2,000 hours for disasters,” he said. “This year it was 4,070 hours in disaster support, which is 2,830 more hours than last year.”
CAP’s fleet of 560 aircraft completed dozens of disaster relief missions and other federal, state and local agency support missions across the country, ranging from the massive rainfall that accompanied Hurricane Matthew in the fall of 2016 to recent support for the responses to Hurricane Harvey, which also wrought historic flooding, and Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
While CAP, the long-time all-volunteer U.S. Air Force auxiliary, is assigned missions by the Air Force, many of those missions — especially disaster relief — are requested by other federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Working through this bureaucracy is a win-win for both the agency that requests help and the CAP volunteers who deliver that help.
“The benefit to the organization is they get a trained resource package,” he said. “But the benefit to our members is they actually get insurance coverage.”
Even though CAP volunteers are not paid for these missions, they do get their out-of-pocket expenses reimbursed, he said.
Additionally, they are provided coverage under the Federal Employee’s Compensation Act.
“So if something were to happen to them on these missions, their families are protected,” he noted.
$42 million = $166 million
CAP’s yearly cost of doing business is about $42 million, including operations, maintenance, and aircraft procurement.
“But when you look at the volunteer dollar value of what we give back, it’s about $166 million worth of donations,” he said.
Of CAP’s approximately 58,000 members, about 32,000 of them get involved in missions around the country.
About 3,000 of the members are current and active pilots, according to Desmarais. Another 6,000 are air crew members.
The rest are support staff, planning staff, communications staff and others who perform critical functions.
“We actually have ground teams that go out and support the rescue side of the ground search,” he said.
“We have a lot of very dedicated folks,” he continued. “It’s pretty amazing what they all do out there.”
Desmarais, who is coming up on 30 years as a CAP member, has witnessed the growth and evolution of the organization.
“If you’d asked me if we would be doing some of the things that we’re doing these days, I would have laughed at you a couple decades ago,” he said. “But those are common place things for us to do now.”
Among those common place missions are homeland security missions, which included more than 600 MQ-9 remote piloted aircraft escort flights in support of the Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing in the 2017 fiscal year.
As part of the U.S. Air Force Reaper training program for pilots and sensor operators, CAP aircrews accompanied MQ-9 Reapers to and from Military Restricted Airspace in central New York state for training exercises. This support helped save taxpayers over $1 million and has increased MQ-9 training by 25%, according to CAP officials.
“CAP is always looking for new opportunities for our members to fly in support of their communities across the country,” said Desmarais.
Nearly every day, CAP pilots escort Reapers from Syracuse to Fort Drum in New York for training. Under FAA rules, the drones must be escorted.
Before CAP began its escort missions, the training exercises involved driving the crews out to Fort Drum, which is about two hours away by ground, then they’d have to drive back.
“So you have the quality of life issues for all those military members, never mind the lost training time,” he said.
Now, with the CAP escorts saving those hours every day, more crews are able to be trained. “It gives them much greater capability and it actually saves them a lot of money,” he said. “It was costing them about $400,000 a year to do that back and forth up to Fort Drum.”
Using CAP volunteer pilots and resources for just these training missions saves the Air Force about $1.4 million, according to Desmarais.
“That’s probably budget dust in the Air Force’s overall budget, but it’s a big deal in the end when you start adding all those things up if you do lots of those kinds of missions across the country,” he explained.
He noted that these training exercises may expand, with CAP providing escorts in other locations around the country, including North Dakota or Texas.
Besides escorting drones, CAP is also starting to use drones to replace some of its manned flying missions.
“We’ve actually got eight test units across the country right now that are learning how to use unmanned aerial vehicles to collect disaster imagery for when we can’t fly,” he said. “We’re pretty well known for our disaster work with hurricanes and fires and stuff. We collect a lot of damage assessment photos. There are times that obviously the cloud deck’s too low and it lingers for a couple of days. We have ground people who can actually use UAVs to collect some of that imagery fairly quickly.”
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve worked with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security science and technology folks to develop a package to collect imagery to meet their needs,” he continued. “And we’ve got test units out there learning how to do that.” He added that in just a few weeks, another batch of 15 volunteers will be trained in using drones.
“We’re actually trying to have an operational mini UAV capability by the end of this calendar year,” he reported. “Technology is changing the way we do business.”
CAP also works with the Air Force in air defense intercept training.
“Our folks help the Air Force train their crews that actually have to do intercepts on folks who enter restricted air space, most the time accidentally,” he said. “They practice that with us damn near every business day.”
Before Sept. 11, 2001, CAP would do about a dozen of these intercept training missions a year. In fiscal year 2016, CAP did more than 200 of those missions, which included 700 sorties.
“It’s a big deal,” he said, adding that in some of the intercept missions the Air Force fighter pilots don’t know it is a training event until they see CAP’s red, white and blue airplane.
$1 Billion in Drugs
CAP also provides counter drug and border mission support on a regular basis to Customs and Border Protection and the agencies supporting counter drug efforts.
“We literally helped take almost $1 billion worth of drugs off the street in fiscal year 2016,” he said. “And I’m sure it’s probably close to the same for 2017.”
He noted that this is something most Americans probably aren’t aware of, as CAP doesn’t promote it too much in the interest of safety.
“Because law enforcement officers are still out there doing those jobs every day, we don’t put out a lot of press releases because that will put them in danger as well,” he noted.
Search and Rescue
The missions that CAP might be most well-known for are Search and Rescue operations. In fiscal 2017, the organization flew 1,812 search and rescue sorties. That’s up a bit from the 1,741 in fiscal 2016.
But search and rescue is somewhat of a misnomer, according to Desmarais.
“Actually, Search and Rescue for us is more than just aviation searches,” he said. “We actually get involved in a lot of missing person searches as well. Probably about 10% to 15% of our Search and Rescue missions are missing person related.”
“It’s not just missing aircraft and ELT searches anymore,” he continued. “We’ve actually got some tools that we have for those members who are doing a lot of support on the ground.”
A critical part of those operations are a team of volunteers who help with cell phone forensics.
“In fiscal year 2017, we had 110 saves credited across the country for CAP, with 100 having cell forensic support,” he reported.
“The cell forensics folks are typically doing a couple of missions just about every day,” he said. “Not all of those missions are actually with our volunteers out on the ground. A lot of times they’re providing data through local Search and Rescue teams and law enforcement to assist them in their local search efforts. In some cases, we have Search and Rescue missions that we don’t even turn a prop on. That’s the irony of it all.”
Incidents and Accidents
Flying more than 100,000 hours a year — which translated to 83,608 sorties in fiscal year 2017 — there are bound to be incidents.
Thankfully there were no major accidents in 2017, while there was one fatal accident in 2016.
“Generally, we have a much lower accident rate than general aviation,” he said.
And because CAP is always trying to protect its resources — its volunteers and aircraft — “we go out of our way to try to do a lot of safety enhancements,” he said. “We’ve worked very hard over the last year or so to actually improve a lot of our systems and it really changed how we’re doing business going forward to enhance a lot of that process.”
“It’s a growing process every day,” he added. “We all learn from our incidents and accidents too.”
Who are CAP Pilots?
Perhaps the biggest surprise to those not in the know are who CAP pilots are.
“A lot of times people think that we’re all private pilots or that we’re all former military pilots,” Desmarais said. “That’s really not the case. About half of our pilots actually are commercial or ATPs who are current airline pilots. So we’ve got a lot of high-time folks.”
And while about half of the CAP pilots are former military, many of them weren’t pilots in the military.
“A lot of them are engineers, communications people and other folks who used their GI Bill to go back to school and become pilots,” he said.
Another misconception is that there’s no more room for private pilots to volunteer.
“Sometimes folks think you have to have lots of hours and it’s really tough to get into,” he said. “It’s really not.”
Pilots need about 200 hours PIC to be able to start flying missions “beyond just transportation stuff,” he reports.
Once involved in CAP, the volunteer pilots are encouraged to continue their training.
“That’s how we maintain good safety records,” he said. “The vast majority of our pilots actually have instrument ratings, and a lot of them didn’t when they came to CAP. A lot of times they’ll work with instructors that we have as part of our program. Of our 3,000 or so pilots that are active in the organization, about 800 of them are CFIs and CFIIs. In any given year, 600 to 700 of those CFIs and CFIIs are providing regular instruction — not only to our cadets, but also to adult members because they conduct our flight evaluations. Every time somebody’s getting checked out to fly one of our 560 airplanes, they’re doing that with a CFI or CFII.”
“We try to make sure that the folks are getting a good education and continuing with that education,” he said. “We are truly trying to foster that.”