By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Created to help patrol the nation's coastline for enemy submarines, the U.S. Civil Air Patrol is getting back to its roots as a potential new defense in the war on terrorism.
The mostly volunteer auxiliary wing of the Air Force was put under the command of the Air Force's homeland security directorate in October 2002, and it is now growing into its role as it works more closely with the new Homeland Security Department.
"We've gone back to our future," said Maj. Gen. Richard L. Bowling, the patrol's commander.
He was in Cincinnati this week for the group's annual National Congress on Aviation and Space Education, which concluded Saturday.
AT A GLANCE
U.S. Civil Air Patrol: |
Created: 1941 (received national charter in 1946 and designated official U.S. Air Force auxiliary in 1948).
Members: 64,000-plus (including more than 10,000 pilots).
Mission hours flown in 2002: 105,709.
Total flying hours in 2002: 121,956.
U.S. Civil Air Patrol
"It's really hard to put your arms around the whole dimension of this thing," he said. "The patrol role (in homeland security) is still so broad and undefined, but we're ready and willing to do whatever the lead federal agency wants us to do."
Patrol officials met last week with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, briefing him on what the patrol can do. And since the patrol was placed under the new department's supervision in October 2002, pilots have begun conducting training exercises specifically geared toward homeland security missions.
Col. Richard L. Anderson, director of the Air Force's auxiliary division, said potential missions could include shipping key medicines or inoculations and patrolling the airspace above sensitive areas such as nuclear power plants, sporting events or even ports and water facilities.
"We have yet to prove ourselves, but we will," said Michael Jay Murrell, commander of the patrol's Ohio wing, which includes seven planes, 1,700 members and 100 active pilots. "In fact, we're hoping to be able to patrol the Ohio State Buckeyes' next national championship."
There have been no such local missions yet, "but we certainly have been training," said Stephen Wolfe, a retired Marine who now owns a Burlington home inspection business and who was designated a home defense pilot shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. "We're ready to go, and we're just waiting for the federal and state governments to decide what exactly they want us to do."
Wolfe is part of the patrol's Kentucky wing, which includes 712 members and 87 pilots. The state's branch operates 10 of the patrol's planes, two of which are based at Cincinnati's Lunken Airport.
Nationally, the patrol owns and operates 550 planes in all 50 states, flying about one official mission daily, with many more practice sessions every week. The agency has grown to include more than 64,000 volunteer members, including more than 10,000 volunteer pilots. Four thousand members joined after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Following its inception in 1941 and original mission in World War II - civil air patrol pilots helped spot 157 subs, sinking two - the agency has undergone many changes. Patrol planes have done everything from search and rescue missions to drug interdiction.
Patrol planes flew over the Ohio River during the 1997 floods, for example, providing aerial views and sending pictures back to disaster relief planners. The primary mission remains search and rescue, with most of its missions consisting of searching for missing planes. The patrol says it saved 88 lives last year.
But the agency also was the first to have planes flying over Ground Zero after the terror attacks, and patrolled the skies over both the 2000 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
The patrol has upgraded its surveillance equipment to include slow-scan television technology and night-vision goggles. Its new motto is "The Eyes of the Home Skies," which was also used during WWII.
The planes are not armed, but they can warn of suspicious activity both in the air and on the ground, Bowling said.
Anderson said that it costs about $90 per hour to keep a patrol plane airborne, compared with anywhere from $350-$4,100 an hour for a military jet, helicopter or transport plane. Each mission that involves homeland security or law enforcement includes a law enforcement official on board.
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