The Forest Park Flight of the Civil Air Patrol is the best kept secret of Forest Park’s Army Reserve building at 7402 Roosevelt Road. And the Civil Air Patrol is “the best kept secret of the U.S. Air Force,” said Maj. Andy Welch, 39, of Chicago. The CAP is the civilian branch of the Air Force, started during World War II to allow private citizens with pilot training to assist in surveillance of waterways and land during wartime. Over time, the CAP’s mission has changed. Now they focus on emergency services: helping find missing aircraft or taking aerial photos of natural disasters such as flooding at the request of federal, state or local agencies.

“All of these members are volunteers who work other jobs. Many do not have a pilot’s license but focus on ground operations,” said Welch. He joined CAP in college but only learned to fly within the past couple of years. CAP members use Air Force military titles, but are civilians.

The CAP has been meeting in Forest Park since 1962. Eleven members of the Forest Park Flight meet monthly to plan training exercises that coordinate search missions with aircraft and ground teams all over Illinois. Saturday, Jan. 28 was the Flight’s yearly “Ice Bowl” where 75 CAP members from all over the state coordinated to perform three mock search missions in cold weather.

Cold weather affects aircraft, equipment and the humans who use them. “Emergencies can happen anytime anywhere. They happen in cold weather and it causes changes to the equipment,” said Maj. David Hoover, who participated in the exercises at DuPage airport Saturday.

The wind-chill was in the low 20s on the tarmac as pilots of the CAP flew two Cessna 182 single-engine propeller aircraft – one with fully digital equipment and the other with traditional “steam gauge” dials. Each “bird” has three crew members: a pilot, a scanner (who works the radio) and an observer who searches for the hidden target and consults aviation charts.

“It’s certainly improved my flying,” said 2nd Lt. Stewart Orlin, a Fox News photographer who lives in Oak Park. “I had my pilot’s license for 10 years before joining CAP. It gave me a way to use my skills. After a while you get to know all the airports around here.” Orlin referred to his leisure piloting as the “$100 breakfast.” Orlin has trained as a scanner, a pilot and an observer. “I’ve learned first aid, CPR. I’ve learned search techniques Ð that helps you not to get lost.”

During Saturday’s exercises, a safety beacon on a plane at Olson Airfield near Hampshire, Ill. was activated for air and ground crews to find. Radio rescue beacons, standard on planes and boats, automatically signal when the vessel crashes. Except when they don’t.

“They’re not foolproof. They can be destroyed by fire. Their batteries can wear out,” said Hoover. That’s what happened to Steve Fossett, the commodities trader/adventurer who crashed his light plane in the Nevada mountains in 2007. Civil Air Patrol volunteers spent 17,000 hours over a month searching for Fossett whose plane was found by hikers 200 miles off-course.

But everything was working fine on Saturday. Using a Becker Radio Direction Finder – “that looks like a white coffee can hanging under the tail of the aircraft,” said Hoover – three crews located the target from the air and radioed a crew waiting on the ground in a 12-passenger van at Ill. Route 47 and I 90. The passengers, who also had a beacon finding radio, took off for Olson Airport and found the beacon. Each sortie lasted around 30 minutes once the signal had been found, said Welch.

Among the ground crew were Cadets Adam Wallace, 20, and his brother Matthew, 13, of Oak Park. The brothers stayed after the exercises with a group that camped in a forest preserve overnight. Both Wallaces aspire to military careers Ð Adam in the Special Forces and Matthew as an Air Force Fighter Pilot. “That would be my dream job,” he said.

CAP Cadets can start at age 12. Both Wallaces got involved while students at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. The Chicago Consolidated Flight holds weekly meetings at the Air Force Academy High School in Chicago at 3630 S. Wells. “I’ve gone up on powered and glider flights,” said Matthew. The flying time is one of the highlights of being a cadet, said Welch. Cadets also can attend CAP’s discounted flight camp in the summer located near Mattoon, Ill. There cadets get instruction in flying light aircraft, gliders and hot-air balloons, said Hoover. The cadet program is an introduction to the Air Force, but CAP remains a civilian non-profit organization says Welch. There are 26,000 cadets in the U.S. today.

Adults join CAP “to help their community, to volunteer,” he said. Welch and four other Forest Park-based members took personal vacation time after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and worked with emergency crews in rural Mississippi. CAP volunteers also assisted during a Kentucky ice storm in 2009, when snapped power-lines destroyed emergency and cell phone communication.

Sometimes a real emergency can interrupt training exercises. Last summer, the Forest Park Flight participated in a regional FEMA exercise. “Operation Ardent Sentry” simulated an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault. But during the middle of training, severe flooding began along the Wabash River.

“We had to sign out of the training and sign into the emergency response,” said Orlin. “I ended up taking real-time aerial photos of flooding over Terre Haute of bridges, locks and dams for FEMA.”

The 62,000 CAP volunteers perform 95 percent of continental U.S. inland search and rescue missions tasked by the Air Force. We’ve been “performing missions for America for 70 years,” said Maj. James Griggs.

Video from the exercises

YouTube video

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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