This is only a test: Civil Air Patrol uses hurricane to hone readiness

Posted July 31, 2010, at 6:40 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The scene: A huge hurricane that has been churning for days in the Atlantic Ocean is bearing down on the Northeast. Its heavy rains and high winds already are wreaking havoc, raising rivers and streams in central Maine, threatening to wash out roads and bridges. Perhaps as a result of the storm, the signal from an airplane’s black box is beeping near Pittsfield, but no one has reported seeing a crash.

The governor is getting ready to declare some sections of the state disaster areas, but accurate information is hard to come by. State and federal officials need to know what’s happening on the ground so they can assess the situation and decide how to proceed.

Whom are they going to call?

The Civil Air Patrol.

The CAP is the official civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. A volunteer organization, it was chartered by Congress in the 1940s and receives federal funding.

On Saturday, the Maine Wing of the CAP participated in a disaster drill to assess the group’s readiness and organizational effectiveness to respond when needed. About 35 of the 400 members of the CAP in Maine took part in the simulation. The Incident Command Post was set up at the Bangor Air National Guard Base.

CAP units from Pennsylvania to Maine participated, according Col. Dan LeClair, wing commander for the group. One of the CAP’s seven planes was dispatched so photographs could be taken of bridges that were reported damaged in Augusta and Gardiner. When the crew returned to Bangor, the photos would be sent to opera-tional headquarters for the drill in New York City.

On the ground, LeClair said, a crew was being sent to the Pittsfield area to track down and silence the black box from a downed aircraft. Once there, the group also would render aid to survivors, set up a perimeter to keep out the public, and assist local police, emergency personnel and investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration as needed.

Lt. Stephen Vorpagel of Reedfield carried a digital camera under his arm late Saturday morning as he boarded the Cessna 182 Skylane at General Aviation in Bangor.

“We’ve been given some coordinates,” he said. “My job is to shoot photographs from about 1,000 feet above the ground. When we return, I’ll turn in the storage disc so the pictures can be transmitted to headquarters for analysis.”

A mason who runs his own business, Vorpagel said he has been a member of CAP for about three years.

“I’m a pilot,” he said, “and this gives me an opportunity to do something I love with people who have the same interests I do.”

Lt. Scott Knighly joined CAP as a cadet in 2000 while still in high school. A recent graduate of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., he was assigned to work on the ground as part of Saturday’s drill.

“This is an opportunity for me to train in a new area so I’ll be more useful to the program,” he said.

Ten years ago, Maj. Dale Fellows of Augusta took his son to a CAP session. Both men ended up joining. Fellows, who operates a forklift at a recycling plant, said his most rewarding work with CAP has been in the search-and-rescue missions in which the organization has participated.

CAP has three key missions, according to information on its website:

ä Emergency services, which include search and rescue by air and ground, and disaster relief operations.

ä Aerospace education for youth and the general public.

ä Cadet programs for teenage youth.

The focus of Saturday’s exercise, according to LeClair, was to ensure CAP members in Maine are prepared to meet the first of its objectives.

On the Web: www.capmembers.com.

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