Thursday, March 13, 2003

Cape man leads Civil Air Patrol to new skies

Published in the Current

Maine’s members of the Civil Air Patrol have a new mission and have formed a rapid-response team to be ready in case they are needed to respond to a public safety threat.

“We’re very involved in homeland security,” said Maj. Chris Hayden of Cape Elizabeth, commander of the Cumberland County Combined Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol.

In an emergency, the Civil Air Patrol could be called on to provide aerial reconnaissance of a disaster site, either visually or with equipment that can measure airborne contaminants. The planes and pilots could also search for people or vehicles, or transfer supplies or personnel to and from emergency sites and staging areas.

Cape Elizabeth has long been home to CAP leaders. Cape resident and newspaper magnate Guy Gannett was a leader in encouraging Fiorello LaGuardia to establish a national group of aviators to help with home defense. On Dec. 1, 1941, a week before Pearl Harbor, the CAP was founded, with Gannett as a member of the board of directors.

Since then, the CAP has been charged with aircraft education, emergency services and cadet training about aircraft handling and maintenance. It is adding the security work to that list and has a new name to reflect its new importance: U.S. Air Force Auxiliary.

“We are basically at the table with the Air Force” in homeland security planning, Hayden said.

The Cumberland County squadron is the first branch of the CAP in Maine to form a quick-response team. “We’ve written the book for the rest of the wing in Maine,” Hayden said.

There are always two pilots on call, who must keep their flight suits and clothing and toiletries for two days close by. The pilots and ground crew members must be able to get into their planes, parked at the Portland Jetport, within an hour after receiving an emergency page.

Members of the group are unpaid, though their aircraft purchases, maintenance and fuel are covered by the Air Force.

They are using cellular phones’ text messaging capability to activate the crews. When a message is received, the phone chirps or vibrates, alerting its owner to a new message. “I actually put mine under my pillow” at night, Hayden said.

The unit has been conducting drills and stepping up their training, to make sure they are prepared if something does happen.

CAP members are planning training exercises with other homeland-security agencies, including the Air Force, the Coast Guard and the National Guard, as well as local law enforcement agencies and the Red Cross.

“We haven’t all been training together,” Hayden said.

Hayden is also trying to spread the word to employers that CAP members have important public-safety duties that may require them to leave work at a moment’s notice. While training, meetings and most CAP activities are done at regularly scheduled times, CAP members may need to drop everything if a major incident occurs, Hayden said.

“If they do get called, let them go without prejudice” is the message he wants employers to get. “They are doing a service for the country.”

In addition, Hayden is building ties to towns and cities in Southern Maine, to let local governments know how the CAP can help them. CAP pilots and crews can search coastlines and borders and monitor disaster sites from above. And they can help towns with aerial photos, road surveys or other assistance where looking at the ground from above could be useful, Hayden said.