Civil Air Patrol: new fuel for fire department of the sky

It's a balmy fall night at the Elks Lodge in Glendale, Calif. The sounds of aerobic dancing echo through one room. In the big hall, Civil Air Patrol Squadron 27 stands at attention.

It has taken 10 years, but now the gap between American youth and all things military that opened up during the Vietnam war seems to be closing. The right half of this group of young teen-agers wear green fatigues and Air Force ''blues ,'' with off-the-ears, off-the-neck military haircuts. These are the insiders, members of the team, committed to the cause.

On the left, new recruits are wearing civilian long-sleeved T-shirts, jeans, corduroys, and the usual slightly unruly hair common to teen-age society. The new school year has brought in a whole troop.

After a post-Vietnam funk that nearly halved the numbers of Civil Air Patrol cadets, the ranks are slowly beginning to flesh out again.

The Civil Air Patrol is the volunteer fire department of the sky, the ''heroes next door.'' A civilian auxiliary of the Air Force with a humanitarian mission, CAP teams fly search and rescue missions for missing planes; its pilots fly emergency medical supplies; its radio network and airplanes are part of many local disaster relief plans.

Its members are all volunteers, for the most part flying their own planes and buying their own radio equipment and their own uniforms.

It is emerging from some lean years. CAP Lt. Col. Stuart P. Hall recalls people spitting when he wore his uniform in the early '70s.Mr. Hall, not a military man but a businessman with his own insurance company, is on 24-hour call year-round - with radios in his van and on his belt - ready to do intelligence gathering for search and rescue missions.

It was the cadet program that suffered most. During the '70s military-style organizations were not in style. Even if students wanted to join CAP, they were often discouraged by older brothers and sisters or even prohibited by their parents, says Frank Burnham, a longtime CAP pilot and author of a 1975 book on the organization, ''Hero Next Door.''

The times seem to be changing. After membership dipped and sputtered from 36 ,981 in 1970 to 22,690 in 1978, the numbers stabilized and have begun to climb again - to 24,246. ''In other words, the curse is off,'' says Burnham, a CAP lieutenant colonel. ''The curse if off the military, so the curse is off the CAP.''

Everybody needs a purpose, and for adults and teen-agers interested in flying or the military, the CAP has a purpose.

A crisp and decisive young fellow, John Sowter projects a plugged-in, ever-ready efficiency that seems unusual for a high school junior. He is one of two top-ranking cadets in the Glendale squadron and is master of the balance the military demands between self-assurance and the readiness to take orders.

This military manner says: Personal views are secondary to larger, common concerns.

''We try to get them thinking about somebody besides themselves,'' says Stuart Hall.

Sowter was an ''average type and didn't get too involved'' when he joined CAP two years ago. He wanted to be a pilot.

Now he wants to be a military pilot, to attend Annapolis with an eye to the Marine Corps, and his style has changed. He has founded a chess club at school. He has begun training for a crack at the cross-country team next fall. And he is eyeing a student government post. ''I want to be a good citizen.''

''A lot of kids drift,'' says Richard Davis, a jovial, talkative, self-employed lawyer who is the commander of this squadron. ''There are so many things pulling at them from different directions. Here they feel like they belong. There's a team effort they can be a part of.''

Outside of CAP, says Michael Milosevich, an articulate cadet in eighth grade, his fellow cadets are his best friends. But at CAP functions it's different. ''You might have to be in charge of a flight,'' he explains, ''and really come down on them.''

That is a discipline and purposefulness that he likes. ''I think it's everybody's opinion that you come here for discipline,'' reports young Milosevich. ''It makes you a better person,'' he says simply. ''You respect authority.''

The other side is respect for yourself. Mr.Milosevich (the cadets here call each other ''Mr.'') points to his buzz haircut and says that CAP ranks higher with him than peer pressure at school. He didn't have to get a buzz haircut. But ''Mr. Sowter got his head shaved, so some of the rest of us got motivated.''

About half the cadets in the squadron are from underprivileged homes, surmises Commander Davis. The squadron becomes the only family these kids have, he says.

''Every once in a while, a kid shows up three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, and he doesn't board (officially join), and we get the idea. He can't come up with the 18 bucks (for the uniform). We get the word out, and one of the Elks usually comes through.''

The cadet program nationally is intended to spread basic knowledge of aviation and aerospace, and most of the weekly meetings are taken up with aviation courses.

It is hoped that cadets will seek careers in aerospace and that a number of them will take up military careers. Of these, a few will join the Air Force. The Air Force Academy is clearly the end of the rainbow for the Civil Air Patrol squadron.

When an airplane is reported missing, the regional Air Force Rescue Coordinating Center will - generally - contact a senior Civil Air Patrol officer to be mission commander.

If a state has an intelligence officer (a job established by Frank Burnham in California in the middle '70s), the officer will be asked to begin piecing together complete profiles of the flight, of the airplane, of the pilot, and even of the passengers. (A passenger with a dominant personality can alter a pilot's normally sound judgment.)

The time it takes to find a missing plane has been cut by more than half in the past 10 years by new technology involving radar tapes and emergency locator transmitters. After an electronic search of the likely flight route, the area is divided into grids to be combed one by one by search planes.

Pilots take off, climb high, fly straight to their assigned grid, and drop to their search altitude (usually about 600 feet). Then they either sweep back and forth in swaths from one end of the grid to the other in the ''creeping line'' search, or start in the middle and spiral out in the ''expanding square'' search pattern, or start at the highest point and wind around in a ''contour'' search.

A search in southern California will put about 15 planes in the air on weekdays and 40 to 50 on weekends. Whenever possible, planes do not work adjacent grids at the same time to avoid collisions.

Pilots and observers report everything spotted in their grids, and Frank Burnham says he likes to see each grid searched three times, once in morning sun , once in midday sun, and once in the evening.

The CAP has its aces.

Cliff Shirpser, an animation cameraman and a captain in the CAP, has made eight finds in search and rescue missions, a record unrivaled in the California wing, which is one of the largest and most active in the US.

He has yet to find survivors, but his spotting ability is so far flawless. Never has a plane been found later in a grid searched by Shirpser, and in each of his finds he spotted the crash before his observer did.

The only secret he will admit to is just ''being there.'' ''No matter how much scientific stuff you put into it, you've got to be in the right place in the right time.'' He doubts the role of intuition. He has been wrong too often. A break in the clouds, the glint of the sun at an odd angle and the plane is revealed.

Like many avid pilots, especially those with military experience, he is not satisfied with just ''boring holes in the sky'' on personal trips and recreational flying. CAP gives him something worthwhile to do with his plane and flying skills. (The Air Force pays for his fuel on CAP missions.)

''If there wasn't search and rescue, I don't know what I'd do in aviation - fly stunts at air shows, I suppose.''

Without the Civil Air Patrol, the nation would be without the services of some 8,000 privately owned airplanes and their pilots and their extensive ground crews and the world's largest single-purpose communications network.

Civil Air Patrol members have a cause in two parts.Their cause is America and its traditional values and as members of a paramilitary organization, their cause is aviation.

In aviation there is a certain romance and a certain promise. Aviation, after all, is how people fly. It is always, as Stuart Hall says, ''a little bit beyond the present humdrum. It's the future, and you can have a piece of it now.''

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