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At 75, Delaware's Civil Air Patrol is Still Flying High

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At 6:30 on a Monday evening in early October, Col. Mike Moyer, a veteran transport pilot and flight instructor, is chatting with members of the Delaware Wing of the Civil Air Patrol’s New Castle Senior Squadron at New Castle Airport. They have gathered in a conference room of FlightSafety International, a Berkshire Hathaway company dedicated to flight training and Moyer’s day job employer. The meeting is a regularly scheduled one, but members of the all-volunteer squadron have their eyes on North Carolina, which was ravaged that weekend by Hurricane Matthew. Will the wing be asked to assist in providing an aerial link for disaster communications among rescuers on the ground?

Disaster response is only one of the roles the Delaware Wing has undertaken in the 75 years since it was formed Dec. 1, 1941, to monitor German submarines along the Atlantic Coast. In the years since, the wing’s duties have changed to meet the needs of the times, but its role as a vital, all-volunteer air link has not. Though it does not function as a rescue unit, it provides the crucial aerial reconnaissance necessary for those performing rescue operations. During quieter times, it helps with more mundane, but important, public service roles such as traffic monitoring and traffic control.

Moyer, a mild-mannered fellow with a round face, close-cropped hair and a ready smile, has been in charge of the wing since June 2013. He downplays his aeronautical experience. “Most of the time, I fly a desk,” he says. As leader of the Delaware Wing, he explains, his duties are mainly administrative. 

Moyer, of Middletown, began his career in the CAP as a cadet in Dallas. He subsequently worked at posts in California, Florida, Kentucky and Indiana, and served as a flight instructor at the National Cadet Flight Academy in Oshkosh, Wisc. It is a breadth of experience in a variety of units that serves him well as head of the Delaware unit.

An adjunct of the U.S. Air Force, the wing, like other wings around the country, does not fly fighter aircraft. Rather, the CAP operates a fleet composed mostly of Cessnas in support of the Air Force’s special operations. It also works with Delaware public safety authorities, who use it as an eye in the sky for everything from search missions to traffic control to special events monitoring.

That was not the case on Dec. 1, 1941. The United States would declare war on Germany 10 days later, but German submarines were already patrolling shipping lanes off the East Coast.

“The CAP first base was in Atlantic City [Coastal Base One], and the second in Rehoboth [Coastal Base Two],” says Robert Hotchkiss Jr., director of public affairs for the wing. Some civilian pilots had previously begun informal patrols to see if they could spot surfacing subs before the unit was formed. At first, the aircraft were unarmed, but they were soon outfitted with bombs so they could attack before subs they had spotted could get away.

During the next 18 months of 1942 and 1943, the CAP, many of them Delaware or Delaware-based pilots, flew 24 million miles of patrol. They reported 173 submarines and attacked 57. When they were too late, they called in aid for 91 ships that had been attacked, and they helped rescue 363 survivors. It was not a job without danger—64 volunteers were lost in the line of duty during the war.

The first two Air Medals awarded by the federal government were presented by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943 to Edmond Edwards and Hugh Sharp, operating out of what was then Coastal Patrol Base 2 in Rehoboth, for rescuing a fellow member, Henry Cross, when his aircraft crashed at sea. Many years later, in 2015, a Congressional Gold Medal, one of the two highest civilian awards in the United States, was given to families of founding members of the Delaware Wing for their wartime services.

By 1943 the Army Air Force had manned up to the extent that it could take over many of the duties the CAP performed, so the organization was transferred to the War Department. In 1946 it was incorporated as a 501(c)3 corporation—tax-exempt and nonprofit—which it still is today. But in 1948, it became an auxiliary unit of the recently formed U.S. Air Force. Its funding is now part of the Department of Defense budget—“a very small part,” Hotchkiss laughs.

The work of the Delaware Wing is less dangerous today, though still important and not without hazards. Like other CAP units across the country, it now has three basic missions: emergency services, cadet training and aerospace education. The wing is composed of four senior squadrons—Dover at Dover AFB, Coastal Base 2 Memorial in Sussex County, the New Castle unit and the Delaware Legislative Squadron. They are joined by five cadet squadrons—Brandywine in Claymont, Eagle at Dover AFB, Middletown at Middletown, Delaware Air National Guard at SBI Duncan Armory and North Chesapeake at Claremont Airport in Maryland. The squadrons boast about 500 members in all.

CAP is not usually involved in ground rescue missions, but it is instrumental in providing emergency support, working with the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and various Delaware agencies. Historically, it has been instrumental in providing search services for downed civilian aircraft, but advances in technology have lessened that role.

During super storm Sandy, Civil Air Patrol units from South Carolina to New York congregated in Delaware to plot out their roles in working with FEMA in response to the devastation on the coasts of New York and New Jersey. “We mainly were involved with aerial photography and damage assessment operations,” Hotchkiss says. When a disaster knocks out ground communication, the planes can help link radio communications between ground units.

The Delaware Wing contracts with Delaware Department of Transportation for a variety of services, operating in two-man Cessna patrols to monitor traffic on major highways during the morning and afternoon rush hours. “This also helps the agency respond to accidents,” Hotchkiss says. “Sometimes we are asked to do photo missions to observe traffic patterns and congestion for major public events such as music festivals and at times such as Black Friday.” They also fly to assess damages from fires, tornadoes and other localized natural disasters.

Then there are times wing pilots are asked to play the role of intruding aircraft. The Air Force and national security agencies call on the CAP and the Delaware Wing for this rather unusual mission when they are constructing game plans on how to defend against possible hostile air intrusions during major public events, especially in the years since 9/11 attacks.

“We act out roles as the bad guys,” Hotchkiss says, in much the same way that scout teams help professional football teams get ready for a game by role playing as the opponent. “It’s all very well scripted,” he says. CAP planes simulate how individuals might attack a large public activity from the air. They performed such services in preparing for Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to Philadelphia and for Super Bowl XLVIII in 2013 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Though pilots know they are just role playing, Hotchkiss says, “It’s still a little scary to all of a sudden see a fighter jet flying alongside one of our Cessnas.”  

Moyer says a large influx of adults joined the CAP in the months after the 9/11 attacks. “Totally, we have about 40 active pilots and 15 who have had training as mission pilots,” he says.

The wing’s second mission, cadet training, is one of its largest and most-visible activities. Through the activities of the five Delaware cadet squadrons, the wing engages people from 12 to 20 in leadership education, flight training and physical fitness. U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, who served as a flight officer in the U.S. Navy from 1968 until 1973, including active duty in the Vietnam War, started his aviation training as a cadet.

“There are a number of activities where we can engage cadets in flying,” Hotchkiss says. They include a flight training school in Virginia, activities at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and participation in the annual Experimental Aircraft Association’s fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisc., where the CAP and the EAA provide training in air show support. During the two weeks of the show, cadets become members of the National Blue Beret organization. 

The CAP also has an international exchange program for cadets. Hotchkiss took part in a swap with Sweden in 1974. There are about 25,000 young people in the CAP across the country at any given time. A large number are in home schooling, with the Cadet program providing valuable activities and training.

The final mission, aerospace education, works with local programs outside the cadet-training structure to offer national standards-based education for youths from kindergarten through high schools. The program impacts more than 100,000 youths a year. Hotchkiss says there is a lot of interest within the CAP in the use of unmanned drones to augment the organization’s effectiveness in fulfilling its roles, which may give new meaning to Col. Moyer’s comments about “flying a desk.”

In the meantime, the wing will continue to fly its Cessnas into its next 75 years of service, meeting whatever new challenges and opportunities arise.