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Arkansas Civil Air Patrol Leader in Search-and-Rescue Technology
By Hilary Hilliard – Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Volunteers for the Civil Air Patrol in Arkansas know their reputation. They’re a search-and-rescue squad, and that’s how the public has always viewed them. After all, just about any time a plane goes down in Arkansas, members of the patrol are on the scene to help.
And nationally, the 64,000-member organization performs about 95 percent of continental U.S. search-and-rescue missions that are tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.
But now – more than 60 years after its inception – the Civil Air Patrol is coming of age with new missions and sophisticated technology unseen by other state and federal organizations, officials say.
The Arkansas Wing, headquartered in Little Rock, is kick-starting that transition.
“This gives us an unbelievable set of ears and eyes,” said Maj Cecil Engles, the Arkansas Wing public affairs officer and a patrol member for six years. “This state is really, really stepping forward.”
Those steps include detecting scofflaws who grow marijuana in their back yards and spotting immigrants in danger of dying before they cross blistering deserts.
It’s all done with new satellite digital imaging equipment showcased by video Saturday at the wing’s annual conference in Hot Springs. The new equipment – which officials call “very, very expensive” – will allow the patrol to take high-resolution digital photos from the air and send them to emergency operation centers through e-mail using satellite phone connections.
The Arkansas Wing – which has just under 600 members and nine aircraft – will be one of the first to take advantage of the systems.
By the end of 2004, the patrol hopes to have the technology in at least one of its planes in every state, Engles said.
Equipment of this level is a first for any operation, Maj Gen Richard L. Bowling – the patrol’s National Commander – told Arkansas cadets Saturday.
Officials at the CIA are “just absolutely amazed at what this can do,” Bowling said of a briefing where the patrol debuted the equipment to the CIA. “In less than 30 or 40 seconds, whoever needs will be able to have it on their desk, from the air.”
Other advances in technology will soon allow the patrol to detect heat from virtually any source, Bowling said.
“As long as it’s not under water, under dirt or under snow, we can see it,” he said. “And we can tell you what it is.”
The technology will allow the Civil Air Patrol to begin missions for groups like the Drug Enforcement Agency, mapping out the illegal growing of marijuana. A pine tree can be distinguished from the illegal plant using the equipment.
“You can’t hide it under nets anymore,” Bowling said. “You can’t hide it under the trees either.”
The technology also will allow the patrol to perform missions at night – something that’s rarely been possible, said Col Reggie Chitwood, Commander of the Arkansas Wing.
“Normally, if there’s an airplane down, we have to wait until morning,” he said. “But with thermal energy detection, we can do it at night and saves lives immediately.”
Cadet Michael Parker, a student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, joined the Arkansas Civil Air Patrol to prepare for a career he hopes to have with the Air Force. Saturday, he was thrilled by the prospect of someday working with the equipment.
“I just can’t wait until it actually makes it down to the field where we can use it,” the 18-year-old said. “This is gonna make it faster and easier for us to help people in distress.”
Security missions have become a major task for the patrol since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We’ve been brought back into the picture very vividly,” said Engles, of Fort Smith. “We’ve basically always been an auxiliary of the Air Force, but we’ve become more closely tied since those attacks.”
The patrol often is brought in to take disaster evaluation pictures for other organizations, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross and the National We at her Service.
“We’re an organization that works for other organizations,” Engles said.
Recently, the Homeland Security Department has offered up more assignments. If the pace of that workload continues, the organization will need more volunteers.
Leaders of the patrol have met with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to understand how its trained corps of volunteers can help protect their country, officials say.
“Every person who works with the Civil Air Patrol is a patriot,” Bowling, the National Commander, said. “CAP stands for ‘come and pay.”
To pick up the extra work, the patrol would like to double its numbers and aircraft in the next five years, Chitwood said. That will require intensive recruitment efforts and more resources for the patrol’s cadet program, which is targeted at 12-to 18-year olds.
Right now, the Civil Air Patrol sponsors a car in the Busch series of NASCAR. It’s painted in the patrol’s colors – red, white and blue, of course – and has drawn a lot of attention to their missions.
But the program’s biggest recruiting tool is national air shows.
“We’re growing everyday,” Chitwood said. “We’re at our highest level ever.”
While the image of the Civil Air Patrol is evolving, members know it was created to save lives. Search and rescue will always be a top priority for the patrol, but new missions will make it a more expansive and more talented organization, Bowling said.
“All this means survivability is enhanced.”
Record Number: 14080806995601F8