This Civil Air Patrol photo captures the view from a CAP Cessna acting as an intercept target for U.S. Air Force fighters off the slower plane’s port side.
More than 15 years after the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Civil Air Patrol and its volunteer pilots are flying more air defense missions than ever, while saving CAP’s parent organization, the U.S. Air Force, millions of dollars annually.
“Prior to 9/11, National Headquarters staff had minimal involvement in mission coordination. CAP’s focus was on search-and-rescue and disaster response,” said John Desmarais, CAP’s director of operations. “That all changed after 9/11.”
“Over the last 15 years, CAP has gone from flying mostly corporate missions to flying 80 percent of the time on missions assigned by the Air Force,” Desmarais said. “We now fly thousands of hours of air defense intercept training and homeland security missions annually.”
In fiscal 2016, CAP provided 80,418 hours for Air Force-assigned missions. Nearly 1,400 of those flight hours were dedicated to air defense intercept training — up 19.4 percent from the previous year.
The air defense flights are necessary to protect the skies over America. Air Force and various state Air National Guards must prepare for a number of threatening scenarios, and training partners can be hard to come by.
CAP has stepped in to fill the void.
Using their small aircraft as mock targets, aircrews participate in regular intercept rehearsals. Defending the airspace over sensitive no-fly zones is essential, and in the event such restricted airspace is violated, military pilots must either force the intruding craft to land or shoot it down.
During the exercises, military pilots corral CAP’s slower Cessnas, boxing them in before guiding them to the nearest airfield outside the no-fly zone. Depending on the mission, CAP pilots simulate a variety of issues – such as communication problems, which is often the case in real-life situations; illness; or individuals intent on doing harm. Occasionally they will take on the role of drug runners or suicidal pilots.
Practices are held nationwide, involving up to four CAP planes and allowing the military pilots to react to a number of potential threats.
“Training is key for crews to remain current and proficient, and Civil Air Patrol is an integral part of that process for the fighter units across the country,” Desmarais said. “CAP is supporting more and more exercises every year, and that leads to more and more opportunities for CAP members to serve.”
Such training contributed to preparations for the extensive security measures undertaken for major events like the Kentucky Derby in Louisville and all the post-9/11 Super Bowls.
CAP’s Texas Wing is preparing to fly exercise support missions Jan. 24, 31 and Feb. 1 in the Houston area to help the Air Force ensure the safety and security of airspace around NRG Stadium for Super Bowl 51.
“I definitely see us doing more of this in the future,” Desmarais said. “CAP has been flying these types of missions for a long time, but continues to fly more of them every year.”
The Air Force has taken note of Civil Air Patrol’s capable and affordable service. In 2015, the Air Force enhanced CAP’s position as its official auxiliary by including CAP as a strategic partner in its Total Force. In addition to CAP, the Total Force encompasses members of the regular Air Force, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Air Force retired military and civilian employees — meaning the Air Force can now consider how to use any mix of these Total Force assets to best complete its noncombat missions.
In a visit to CAP National Headquarters following last year’s Total Force announcement, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James emphasized another often-cited major positive — CAP’s cost-effectiveness. It’s estimated CAP’s all-volunteer force saves the Air Force close to 40 times the cost of using military assets for each hour of service.
In addition to air defense intercept training, the Air Force is increasingly calling on CAP for other homeland security missions, particularly to help train its own members. Operation Green Flag training is conducted routinely in Nevada and Louisiana, focusing on air-to-ground operations and filling a critical training gap in support of Army and Marine forces as they prepare to deploy.
Over the past seven years, sensor balls attached to the wing or the belly of CAP Cessnas have turned the aircraft into “Surrogate UASes” to mimic the Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper — unmanned aircraft that provide real-time data to U.S. service members.
CAP’s Green Flag flying was up 17.4 percent in 2016, totaling nearly 1,200 hours.