The Search for Steve Fossett
One tough job for the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.
- By Michael Behar
- Air & Space magazine, March 2008
(Page 2 of 7)
Airplanes go missing almost daily throughout the country, so you can bet that at any given moment a CAP crew is airborne somewhere. The CAP also helps with immigration enforcement, homeland security operations, drug busts, disaster relief, and ferrying organs for transplants. On 9/11, it was a CAP pilot who snapped the first aerial images of the World Trade Center site.
The Civil Air Patrol was formally established on December 1, 1941, at the behest of Gill Robb Wilson, an aviator and strident proponent of military preparedness. Wilson urged the formation of a civilian air fleet to assist with military operations. Six days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (nice timing, Wilson), and the CAP set to work. The volunteers supplied their own aircraft; popular ones included Fairchild 24s, Piper J3s and J4s, and Stinson 10As. In World War II, spotters in CAP aircraft painted red and yellow sighted 173 German submarines prowling America's coastal waters. In Flying Minute Men, a history of the CAP, Robert Neprud tells of a German naval officer who was asked after the war why Hitler eventually withdrew his U-boats from U.S. shores. "Because of those damned little red-and-yellow planes," scowled the officer.
Today, the CAP is a nonprofit auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, which funds the organization and owns the CAP's fleet of 530 airplanes. There are 1,500 squadrons nationwide (some aircraft are tied to more than one squadron), stationed at 150 locations, "but we could have a base almost anywhere there is a phone and an airstrip," says Cynthia Ryan. "We have to be fast and flexible and have actually, in years past, run searches off of a CAP member's kitchen table."
The CAP operates something like a volunteer fire department: Its 57,000 members—including pilots, scanners, radio communications specialists, ground crews, and office personnel—lurk anonymously in our midst until summoned to duty. Many are retired military and airline pilots who joined the force to keep their skills fresh and to fly for free. At times, volunteers sacrifice weeks of vacation, leaving their jobs to join a search.
Last year, the CAP saved the lives of 105 people. One was Dennis Steinbock, a 53-year-old high school civics teacher from Klamath Falls, Oregon. In June, Steinbock purchased a Zodiac 601XL light sport aircraft in Birmingham, Alabama. He was flying it back to Oregon when at 3,200 feet the engine quit, and the airplane plunged into remote woods southwest of Oxford, Mississippi. The airplane crashed through the trees, flipped upside down, and left Steinbock pinned in the cockpit with a separated shoulder, a punctured lung, and deep lacerations on both of his legs.
When he didn't close out his flight plan, the Federal Aviation Administration initiated an investigation. Soon after, the CAP's Mississippi Wing went looking for him.
On impact, the Zodiac's emergency locator transmitter (ELT) had automatically begun sending a Mayday signal. Alerted, the CAP aircraft homed in on the beeps. "I heard the planes flying over and tried doing all kinds of stuff to get their attention," recalls Steinbock. "I used the lid from an Altoids can, reaching through an opening in the cockpit and flashing it—only I was under 60-foot oak trees and they couldn't see me. But I had a lot of faith in the Civil Air Patrol and was confident they would continue searching."
He was right: With the ELT fix on Steinbock's location, CAP crews launched a ground search. Three volunteers hiked into the woods and found Steinbock. He'd been trapped for 54 hours.