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.
In Nevada, the CAP runs about 30 searches a year. "Of those, only about half turn out to be lost; the others just land and forget to clear out their flight plans," says Gary Derks, an officer for the Nevada Department of Public Safety. Derks is a big portly man with a gentle voice who hates to fly. He's the chief lawman in charge of the Fossett operation, and has been coordinating the efforts of the CAP, National Guard, Navy, and state authorities.
Whenever an airplane goes missing, the initial call from a worried friend or family member typically goes to the FAA, the local police, or an airport flight service (the one at the Reno-Tahoe airport got the call about Fossett at 1:10 p.m., about five and a half hours after he'd departed, from an unidentified family member). If the airplane disappears in Nevada, the next call is to Derks.
"We start by doing ramp checks," he says. Alerts go out to every airport in range of the missing flight to see if the pilot landed and simply forgot to tell anyone he arrived. If that fails, Derks notifies the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. The center directs all overland search-and-rescue operations in the Lower 48, Mexico, and Canada. When ramp checks turned up nothing after Fossett was reported missing, Derks met with AFRCC brass to hash out the next step. "It was nighttime, and there was a possibility of him being trapped in one of the canyons," Derks recalls. "They're narrow and steep and it's tough to see anything."
The coordination center asked the Navy base in Fallon to conduct a preliminary search with its night-vision Hueys. When that proved unsuccessful, Derks and the center sounded the alarm to mobilize nearby CAP volunteers.