MACHIAS, Maine — A lost hiker. A downed aircraft. Problems along a natural gas pipeline.
These are all potential missions for the Maine Civil Air Patrol and were the scenarios this weekend for a search and rescue exercise that involved 50 CAP members from around the state.
“We do this every month,” said Col. Dan Leclair, the wing commander for the Civil Air Patrol in Maine.
The purpose, Leclair said, is to exercise the equipment and the people in a realistic setting to prepare for the real thing if it ever happens. And the real thing does happen.
In 2009, Civil Air Patrol crews around the country saved 72 lives, according to Capt. Mary Storey, the public affairs officer for the squadron. In Maine, there are about 400 members, who work in the air and on the ground on a variety of search and rescue, homeland security and border patrol missions. Maine CAP crews have worked with state and federal drug enforcement agencies and fly regular fire watch flights in conjunction with the Maine Forestry Service.
The Civil Air Patrol also has been flying missions in the Gulf of Mexico since the Deep Water Horizon oil rig exploded, according to Leclair. CAP has provided incident command staff and pilots who have been taking about 3,000 photographs a day of the oil spill in the gulf.
“Those photos you see on TV; they’re ours,” Leclair said.
The Maine Civil Air Patrol, he said, is on call to provide relief to those pilots and could be called for gulf duty soon.
All members are volunteers, and last weekend about 50 members from different Maine squadrons turned out to participate in the search and rescue exercise or SAR-EX.
According to Leclair, the CAP’s seven Cessna aircraft are equipped with modern computer technology that not only provides the pilots with information about the plane, replacing many of the gauges in the aircraft, but also provides weather and geographic information via GPS technology.
The technology allows pilots to overlay grid patterns on regional maps to establish parameters for any particular search area.
“We can set up a grid pattern, and then the pilots fly that grid pattern,” he said. “They relay that information to the ground crews.”
The three exercises involved a downed aircraft, a lost hiker and problems with the natural gas line that runs through Maine. In addition, Leclair said, they set up an airborne repeater to provide communications for the exercises.
Both the aircrews and ground crews got to practice their skills and procedures on the three scenarios during the two-day exercise.
Warren King of Auburn, one of the volunteer CAP pilots, said that initially, they had been sent to Eastport to check the airport there for a report of a missing airplane. While in flight, the call came in redirecting them toward the coast to look for a downed plane.
The downed plane was actually aluminum foil laid out in the shape of a Grumman Tiger on the ground. King flew the grid pattern as his crew began the search.
“We’d gone by it on our first pass; we didn’t see it,” he said. “When we came back, the sun reflected off the foil. Then we could see the shape of it.”
King said they relayed information to the ground crew and circled the area until they located the plane.
That experience is part of the lesson the exercise aims to get across, according to Leclair.
“The angle of the sun, the time of day all makes a big difference in finding a downed aircraft,” he said.
The younger squadron members, or cadets, fill an important role in the mission, serving on the ground crews. With supervision form older members, they used the information from the skies to locate the lost hiker or the downed aircraft. They also helped to provide ground communications during the exercises and on the flight line.