Civil Air Patrol Squadron No. 819

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In the fall of 1941, a fleet of German U-boats lurked off the eastern seaboard. Its mission was to sink cargo ships coming to and leaving the United States.

A group of civic minded pilots volunteered their services to the U.S. Air Force. With its permission, the pilots would fly out over the Atlantic, spot the submarines and report their positions back to the Air Force.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Civil Air Patrol senior member and pilot Craig Colter, far right, gives a pre-flight briefing to CAP Cadets Amber Anderson, left, and Caleb Ramsell, center, early one morning last month. The 23 cadets flew to airports in Socorro, Grants and Albuquerque from the Belen Alexander Airport. The planes flew two cadets at a time, allowing each on to take a turn flying the plane.

The group was so good at spotting the subs, it eventually pitched the idea of helping to eliminate them. The Cessna 182s were outfitted with rudimentary metal tubes through the bottom of the fuselage and the crews were given hand held torpedoes.

After sinking three U-boats, the German fleet commander withdrew his submarines from U.S. waters, cursing “those damned little yellow planes.”

And from those not-so-humble beginnings came the Civil Air Patrol. On Dec. 1, 1941, Congress authorized the formation of the CAP as an auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force.

The attack on Pearl Harbor came six days later, and the CAP stood along side the rest of our armed forces and joined the fury of World War II.

After the war, the CAP charter was amended to state the auxiliary group would no longer see active combat.

But that didn’t spell the end for the air patrol. It continued on for more than seven decades, holding true to its ideals of integrity, volunteer service, respect and excellence.

The 501c3 nonprofit volunteer organization now has more than 60,000 members who support programs such as aerospace education, cadet programs and emergency services missions.

And on Feb. 7, Belen Middle School joined with the U.S. Air Force/Civil Air Patrol and started the first cadet squadron in Valencia County, now known as CAP Squadron No. 819.

Youth can first join the organization when they reach the age of 12 or the sixth grade, whichever comes first.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Civil Air Patrol Squadron No. 819 Cadet Amber Anderson, 14, gets buckled up by CAP senior member and pilot Craig Colter in preparation for an orientation flight last month. Anderson was one of 23 cadets who earned a flight and a chance to fly a plane.

Squadron commander Major Ken Johnston, CAP, said the civil air patrol is an excellent organization for local youth to become involved with because not only does it give them exposure to science, math and aerospace curriculum, thanks to the school enrichment program that is taught as an elective there, but it gives them a glimpse of what is possible as adults.

“You get to see the smile on their faces, the change in their attitudes,” Johnston said. “We are helping these kids find some direction. If they can find that discipline and self esteem before high school, their chances of success greatly increase.”

The other senior members for Squadron No. 819 — Lt. Ron Goens, CAP; Charles Cox, safety officer; Pati Woodard, public affairs officer; and Fran Johnston, administrative officer — agree that the program can make a significant impact on the life of a young person.

“It is helping kids get a direction in life,” Fran Johnston said. “The kids who join would rather do this than go out in the streets and play. You would think, who wants to put on a uniform and march in formation? You would be surprised.”

Woodard said even her son, as an officer with the Belen police department, has seen the difference CAP can make to a child.

“He’s told me about times when he’s gone out on calls, and in talking to the kids, found out they’re in civil air patrol,” Woodard said. “They tell him, this is a way out for them. They know there’s other ways to live — to get out of violence and drugs.”

Cox said CAP absolutely shows youngsters the different possible choices they have in life.

“They look at people who have a lot of things, and want those things too. But maybe that person got those things standing on a street corner, selling drugs,” Cox said. “If they join a group like this, hopefully they see people like me and say, ‘Hey, he did pretty good for himself. Maybe there’s another way to do this.’”

When he first entered the adult world, Goen admits it was a “disaster. Maybe this is the spark put in these kids’ heads that will help them through life. Maybe it will give them a different start than I had.”

One aspect of the CAP that is a huge asset to not just a local community, but around the nation, is it’s participation in search and rescue operations. Johnston said 90 to 95 percent of SAR events are done by CAP pilots and crews.

After Sept. 11, 2001, CAP planes were the only ones allowed in the air, besides military units, he said. The CAP crews were tasked with flying over and taking pictures of Ground Zero.

Less than a month ago, New Mexico CAP pilots were called out on a search and rescue of a lost camper if the Arizona forests. The man had driven into the woods in a green pickup, which blended in with the surrounding trees.

Using on-board cameras that can distinguish between the subtly of thousands of colors, the CAP crew was able to locate the vehicle, relay it’s location to ground searchers and help find the camper.

On the flight back from Arizona, the crew picked up the signal of an emergency locator beacon. It was from a helicopter that had made an emergency landing.

The crew was able to home in on the signal, visually locate the downed aircraft and guide ground crews to the site.

“So we had two in one day,” Johnston said. “That’s just one thing we do that most people don’t even realize.”

Goen joked that they were the “non-warriors” of the armed forces.

In March, the squadron had its first “field day” at the BMS soccer field. They learned to march and run in formation, underwent physical conditioning and received their first uniforms.

“You never saw more excited kids going through the line to get their uniforms,” Johnston said. “They were putting them on over their physical fitness clothing and right there, before our eyes, we saw youths turn into CAP cadets.”

Members of the squadron took their first “o-flights,” or orientation flights, last month. Johnston said the program always makes sure the cadets get their first flight within 90 days of joining the squadron.

Flying out of Belen Alexander Municipal Airport, the cadets went up in CAP planes, two at a time, with an FAA certified flight instructor. They flew to various local airports, such as Grants and Albuquerque.

While in the air, each cadet took a turn flying the plane, getting their first hour of flight instruction.

“One of the really fantastic things about this program is these kids have the opportunity to earn their pilot’s license before their driver’s license,” Johnston said. “That’s pretty amazing.”

The squadron has grown so rapidly that Johnston says it has become the largest in the state, with 44 members. Right now there are five senior members, but Johnston said they can always use more.

“The more senior members you have, the better program you can offer the cadets,” he said.

Any adult, 18 or older, with no felony convictions, can apply to become a senior member. Johnston said that while they are looking especially for people with prior military, Boy Scout, Girl Scout or other youth group experience, any adult that enjoys working with youth to give them the benefit of their training and experience is a welcome addition.

And you don’t even have to be a fan of flying to be a senior member.

“I talked to one man who was thinking of joining, but he was terrified of flying. He thought we would make him fly,” Johnston said. “But there are so many other things we need people to do. For every person up in the air, there are 10 on the ground.”

Adults who join will find other opportunities in addition to staffing cadet school squadrons. CAP is a well developed professional development program for adults.

There is also a possibility of being involved in flying activities as pilots, observers (navigators and scanners), emergency services personnel and radio communicators.

Because the CAP squadron is an all-volunteer effort, Johnston and the other senior members say they volunteer not only their time but sometimes their pocket books.

To help cover the costs of some very needed new uniforms for the cadets, the squadron is holding a flea market and car wash fundraiser, starting at 7:30 a.m., Saturday, July 7, at the Southwest Emporium, 19497 N.M. 314, in Belen.

Call 859-4328 with questions or for information about the fundraiser.

For information about the CAP and Belen Middle School Cadet Squadron 819, contact Johnston by email at Lmpilot2@yahoo.com, or call 715-9840.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.