Story And Photos By Shannon Caine
You are flying in a small aircraft. It’s just a minor business flight, one you’ve taken plenty of times before. But this time, something goes wrong. Despite all of the pilot’s efforts, it is clear that your plane is going to crash.
And it does.
You, and the wreckage, are now deep inside a forest in Northwest Arkansas. There is no town nearby, and no people around for miles. It is getting dark. Soon enough, you find the pilot, or at least you find her lifeless body. As for you, you’ve got a massive gash on your right arm, and suspect that at least one rib is broken. Since you had expected this to be a brief flight, the only food you packed was a bag of potato chips. Good luck finding those. You planned on staying in a comfortable hotel tonight. However, you are now in the middle of a forest in a location you can only guess at, with no food, water or camping supplies. Your cell phone is among the wreck of the airplane. The weather is threatening to turn bitterly cold, and you need medical attention.
Who will come to your aid?
There’s a good chance that assistance will come from the Civil Air Patrol. More specifically, it will likely be from the 115th Composite Squadron of Rogers.
The aircraft you chartered was equipped with an ELT, an emergency locator transmitter. You, as a passenger, do not realize this, nor do you understand how it works. But you’re going to make it. The 115th is on the way.
Civil Air Patrol members at a training session
The 115th Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol was founded in 1994 by Lt. Col. Byron McLaird. The squadron operates out of Rogers, and serves Northwest Arkansas. Its membership is composed of individuals from across the region, including the Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Siloam Springs and Bentonville areas. Its headquarters are located at the Carter Field airport in Rogers.
The Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary of the United States Air Force, engages in both air and ground operations, with a strong emphasis on search and rescue missions.
Capt. Jonathan VerHoeven, 23, of Fayetteville, is the Public Affairs Officer of the 115th Composite Squadron. He said that although the Civil Air Patrol is numerically larger than the United States Coast Guard, many people have not heard of them. Because Civil Air Patrol members wear military-style uniforms, it is easy for civilians to mistake them for members of various branches of the armed forces. VerHoeven describes the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) as one of “America’s best-kept secrets.” Although the 115th Composite Squadron is highly active in Northwest Arkansas, many people are not even aware that they exist.
Trained And Dedicated
CAP members are trained for emergency service and disaster relief, often working behind the scenes to ensure public safety. One remarkable aspect of the Civil Air Patrol is that its members are unpaid. Members undergo intensive training and are often first responders to crashed aircraft and natural disasters, and they work on a volunteer basis. CAP members are highly dedicated.
“They perform countless missions 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for nothing more than a handshake and a ‘job well done,’” said Brig. Gen. Reggie Chitwood of the Civil Air Patrol. “It is awesome to see them perform their duties in a professional and exemplary manner.”
CAP is divided into units knowns as “wings,” and these wings are subdivided into squadrons. All CAP units in Arkansas fall under the jurisdiction of Arkansas Wing, which is broken up into different squadrons, including the 115th Composite Squadron.
A Cessna 182 at Civil Air Patrol headquarters in Rogers
The cadet program is pivotal to the CAP. Cadets are accepted as early as age 12. If a cadet joins prior to age of 18, he or she may remain a cadet until age 21. However, if joining at age 19, the applicant has a different status, and can be designated as a flight officer within the squadron.
These young people enter into military-style training, are issued uniforms, learn about a wide variety of subjects, including aerospace education and actively participate in drills. For youth interested in aviation, CAP offers multiple opportunities for getting involved with aircraft. Cadets are not merely lectured about aviation, emergency preparedness and other topics, but work directly with these subjects on a first-hand basis.
Although some people might feel that military-style training is too intense for kids, many young people actually like the structure and discipline of CAP training. For parents who are worried about safety, it should be noted that safety is a primary concern within the CAP.
All cadet activities and training are carefully monitored by senior members. The cadets are around functional aircraft, but are heavily supervised. There are uniforms, drills, tests and training aplenty, but the CAP is unarmed. CAP training, although military in nature, does not involve combat drills that might jeopardize a cadet’s safety. As VerHoeven said, “There is so much more to military training than learning how to fight.”
VerHoeven himself began his days in CAP as a cadet, and is now a senior member. Looking back on his cadet years, he observes that military training was a very positive force in his life.
“I learned about setting goals, taking responsibility, following directions, time management, attention to detail, and looking out for others as a result of my Civil Air Patrol cadet training. I became achievement-oriented, and learned how to focus on group-oriented goals. The Civil Air Patrol is not about individualism, but rather, about functioning as a team.”
Cadets start at the bottom of the rank system and work their way up. VerHoeven says that the goal of gaining rank kept him going. “I never once lost focus on the Civil Air Patrol.”
Some cadets use CAP training as a springboard for military careers, particularly in the U.S. Air Force, but others decline military service and choose to focus on civilian careers instead. There is no obligation for cadets to join the military or to remain in the CAP any longer than they wish to.
Civil Air Patrol volunteers gather at Carter Field in Rogers
All Ages Involved
In some cases, CAP membership can involve entire familes. VerHoeven has relatives who are active in the CAP and it is not uncommon to find family groups working together. CAP is open to middle-aged people and retirees as well as to cadets, so it’s not inconceivable that grandparents could be active in a squadron alongside their grandchildren.
Second Lt. Bill Wright of Bella Vista, 79, is in this position. His grandson, Cadet Staff Sgt. Nathan Paine, is a member of the 115th, as are other relatives. Wright is a former Air Force member who joined the CAP following his retirement.
“It’s a great program,” Wright said. “I just found myself becoming increasingly involved, and ended up joining.” As a ham radio operator, he found a niche in the 115th as a communications officer.
“There are many different specialties within CAP,” Wright said. “Even if you don’t initially have a clear idea of what you want to specialize in, something can doubtless be found for you.”
Specialties include communications, public relations, finance, logistics, safety, recruiting and more.
When asked if he would recommend participation in the CAP to retirees as well as to young people, Brig. Gen. Reggie Chitwood said that he would recommend CAP to “any citizen, young or old, who has the desire to volunteer to assist our local communities, the state of Arkansas and the United States of America.”
Although men tend to be more active than women within the CAP, there are a growing number of female members. One of those members, Cadet Second Lt. Juli Lestina, 17, from Bentonville, serves with the 115th. When asked if males and females are treated equally within CAP, she replied, “Absolutely. In the Civil Air Patrol, female cadets have the same opportunities as everyone else. There is no discrimination against women.”
Lestina is proud to wear the Civil Air Patrol uniform. “Being able to wear the uniform is a great honor and privilege. When you are in that uniform, you know that you are part of something larger than yourself.”
It’s that kind of pride that makes Lestina confident about recommending CAP to other young people.
“The Civil Air Patrol has a way of bringing out the best in everyone,” Lestina said. “We are defined by integrity, service, excellence and respect. CAP inspires the motivation and determination needed for cadets to meet their goals.”
She said that CAP training carries over into one’s daily life. “Every standard that is expected of you in Civil Air Patrol stays with you at the meeting and at home. We’re expected to define our lives by our core values. They’re not something you leave at the meeting every Tuesday night. We take these values home.”
VerHoeven said that although there are fewer female members, they tend to perform “disporportionately well.” Female members often have a reputation for excellence and achievement.
On Aug. 15, the 115th engaged in a training exercise at their headquarters in Rogers, and also at another location in Missouri. The training involved simulating a search mission for a lost aircraft. CAP members were joined by civilians who took on the roles of victims, families of victims, media personnel and other parties one might potentially encounter at the scene of an emergency.
Cole Penick, 24, of Fayetteville played the part of the brother of both the pilot and a passenger on a missing Cessna 152. In this hypothetical scenario, the plane was being flown by a newly-licensed pilot who also had his 14-year-old sister on board as an undocumented passenger. The aircraft, which was en route from Benton, to Joplin, Mo., never arrived. Intense thunderstorms were reported in the area, and it was not known if the plane had crashed, or if the pilot had made an emergency landing to avoid hazardous weather conditions. Additionally, the pilot reported mechanical problems southeast of the Springdale Municipal Airport and briefly landed there, but took off again. The location of the pilot, passenger and plane were unknown.
Penick’s job was to confront CAP members who were on their lunch break and aggressively question why they weren’t busy doing more to find his brother and sister. Next, individuals acting as press members showed up attempting to extract information about the missing flight from CAP cadets. Yet another press member went around the hangar taking numerous photographs while cadets were distracted by a reporter. It was a test to see how they would react to random variables, such as distraught relatives and media personnel descending upon an already potentially chaotic scene.
Regular training in exercises such as these ensure that when an emergency occurs in the Northwest Arkansas area, the 115th Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol will be ready to render assistance with precision and professionalism.
The CAP also provides a long list of non-emergency services to the public. As Chitwood said, “Whether providing personnel and aircraft for a search and rescue mission, traffic control at a local airshow, giving orientation flights to teachers in the local school districts, or taking photographs of a disaster area for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, the Civil Air Patrol is available 24 hours a day to assist the state of Arkansas in many, many ways.”