Eyes on the skies: Dedicated volunteers keep Delaware’s Civil Air Patrol Wing flying

DOVER — Civil Air Patrol (CAP) pilot Lt. Col. Ray Stone of Frederica was making some minor adjustments to the airplane’s navigational equipment and glanced outside to see the bright morning sun slightly above the horizon to the east.

Visibility was unlimited in all directions and the cool, smooth air made this early morning flight over the Delmarva Peninsula very enjoyable. What more could a pilot ask for?

Without warning the plane’s radio came to life: “Aircraft west of Salisbury at 5,500 feet. You are in a restricted area and have been intercepted by an armed military aircraft. What are your intentions?”

All three crewmembers aboard the Civil Air Patrol Cessna scanned the sky and within a few seconds Dover resident Lt. Mark Holloway, who was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, was the first to spot the fighter.
“There he is! He’s on our left side!,” he said.
It was an Air Force F-16 with its nose slightly pitched up to keep pace with the slower Cessna.
Ordinarily, having a military jet suddenly appear in close proximity would startle most pilots, but not this time.
This was a well-planned exercise to test the air defense capability of U.S. military forces that respond when unknown aircraft fly into airspace designated as sensitive for security reasons or reserved for special operations.
F-16 fighter jets normally cruise around 600 mph, so it requires a lot of skill and a soft touch to stay beside a small airplane going only 140 mph.

Lt. Holloway answered the F-16’s pilot with a scripted story about being an inexperienced pilot and didn’t realize he had flown into a restricted area. Once he was identified as non-threatening, the Air Force pilot gave him directions to his destination.

The F-16 and his wingman departed but returned a few minutes later with another intercept and a different story from the CAP crew.
This time Lt. Holloway played the part of a sight-seeing passenger saying the pilot appeared to be having trouble breathing and was holding his chest.

The Air Force pilot radioed some basic instructions on how to steer the plane and began guiding him to a nearby airport. He also simulated notifying emergency personnel to be prepared at the proposed destination.

After several intercepts with different scenarios, the jet pilot radioed they were done for the day and thanked the CAP crew for their teamwork. Had the intruding aircraft been a real security threat there would have been a very different ending.

“It can get a little interesting,” Lt. Holloway said. “To see the pilot of the F-16 scissoring back and forth to fly at our speed, and here we are trying to be a target on purpose so the National Guard can practice their stuff … you could say it makes for an interesting day.”

Col. Robert Mooney, commander of the CAP’s Delaware Wing, said intercept missions are vital to help keep military pilots ready to handle any situation and protect the country’s borders. It also gives CAP crews additional training to go along with flying daily homeland security sorties within the state.

“There is a shortage of qualified pilots worldwide and we’re seeing the same problem here Delaware,” Col. Mooney said.

All in a day’s work

Those scenarios are just a couple of the many that can unfold in a day’s work for the nearly 400 members of the Delaware Wing of the Civil Air Patrol.

CAP Delaware is led by former state trooper and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mooney, who was assigned the CAP rank of Colonel.
Col. Mooney said CAP Delaware in all three counties is always on the lookout for both young and older individuals with an interest in aviation to become volunteers. However, he cautions, it’s not easy.

“The dedication is unprecedented to any other type of volunteer organization,” Col. Mooney said. “With the requirements that we have in the emergency and rescue service and search and rescue, there’s a preparedness-level involved, so people have to maintain quality, they have to maintain currency and the dedication is unlimited.

Pre-flight check.

“Right now, we have 149 cadets and we have 243 senior members in CAP Delaware Wing. We’d love to get those numbers up. The Civil Air Patrol is no different than the fire service, we’re looking for volunteers all the time. An individual has got a lot of hours and dedication through training to be able to get into the aircraft and perform a mission.”

The Delaware Wing of the CAP had more than 500 members just six years ago.

Not every member of the CAP is a pilot. Many of its’ volunteers work in radio communications, with others on ground support, along with several other opportunities available due to the wide scope of the organization’s missions, which include: search and rescue, disaster relief, emergency service, counterdrug and homeland security missions throughout the state of Delaware.

In addition, its’ members also perform non-auxiliary missions for various governmental and private agencies, such as damage assessment aerial photographs of areas stricken by natural disasters and flying supplies in support of the American Red Cross.

CAP is responsible for 90 percent of inland search and rescue missions in the United States as tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. Delaware Wing’s flight crews, ground teams, communication teams and incident command center members conduct numerous Air Force-assigned search and rescue missions each year.

Lt. Holloway is not a pilot but a flight crew member and assistant director of communications for CAP’s Delaware Wing.

“The volunteerism is what stands out most for me about the Civil Air Patrol,” he said. “When I fly, I am a scanner looking out the side of airplane for anything and anybody on ground. We do some missions for the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT). We have two routes, one up north over Wilmington and down south, monitoring traffic and potential targets for homeland security.

“I primarily work with the youth – the cadets – and any radio knowledge that I can give them I try my best to do.”

Lt. Col. Stone said it takes dedicated personnel for the CAP to successfully fulfill its many missions.

“You talk about integrity to start with,” said Lt. Col. Stone, who has been a pilot for around a half century. “We have certain standards and there’s a lot of discipline. A lot of our cadets have gone to the Air Force Academy and a lot of them are even Air Force pilots now.

“There are all kinds of things to do in the Civil Air Patrol, whether you’re interested in radio communications or anything else. It’s really a great opportunity for younger kids.”
Delaware Wing’s seven single-engine Cessna aircraft overfly the state’s three counties and keep watch over vehicular traffic and the Delaware Bay almost every day, including weekends and holidays, while coordinating activities with the DelDOT, the Delaware Emergency Management Agency (DEMA) and federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies.
Quite a history

CAP is unique in that it is funded by the government but manned entirely by unpaid civilian men and women volunteers.

The program was created shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to help spot German submarines that began sinking merchant vessels along the east coast in 1942.

The first actual CAP mission originated out of Coastal Patrol Base 2 at Rehoboth Beach airport.

That airport has since closed but CAP’s success in thwarting sub attacks and safeguarding shipping lanes led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order in 1943 transferring CAP from the Office of Civilian Defense to the Department of War.

By the end of the war, CAP pilots had flown more than 500,000 mission hours.
However, during that period more than 90 aircraft were lost and about 60 volunteers lost their lives. Civil Air Patrol was officially designated as the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary in 1948.
In 2015, Sussex County Council voted to change the name of the airport in Georgetown to Delaware Coastal Airport, a name that better reflects the service area and CAP’s history at Rehoboth.
Since its beginning, the Civil Air Patrol has grown to become part of the Air Force’s total force with a corporate fleet of about 550 aircraft and more than 64,000 senior and cadet members across the country and U.S. territories.

CAP cadets, who range in age from 12 to 21, are offered activities in aerospace education, leadership skills, emergency services training, physical fitness and character development to help prepare them should they decide to pursue a career in the Air Force or another branch of service.

Ireland Koch, who will be a junior at Caesar Rodney High School this year, was busy working in radio communications with CAP officials at Dover Air Force Base last weekend.
She was trying to help a grounds crew locate a transponder beacon that was being sought by CAP aircraft during a search and rescue simulation near the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in New Castle County.

Ms. Koch said it is invaluable training as she prepares for a career in the Air Force.
“It’s pretty exciting and it can be pretty fun sometimes,” she said. “This is great experience because I want to be in the Air Force. I’m learning a lot.”

Col. Mooney added that CAP offers invaluable training to all cadets who offer to volunteer, and it’s not just for pilots.
“There are lots of opportunities for members to become an important part of our aircrews or operations support staff,” Col. Mooney said.

“Besides pilots, we have positions such as mission staff assistants, radio operators and airborne photographers. Our cadet program helps give our youth a foundation for serving their country, either in military or civilian careers.

“We are very proud of our cadets and the future they bring to America.”
Senior and cadet members of CAP Delaware Wing are just a part of the 56,000 members of the CAP across all 50 states who volunteer their time, energy and expertise toward searching for and finding the lost, providing comfort and support in times of disaster and working to keep the United States safe.

“It is just something that we are all proud of and love to do,” Lt. Holloway said.

Gary Emeigh writes special reports for the Delaware State News

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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