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Nurturing a Passion for Aviation

Flying with Civil Air Patrol

By Paul Cianciolo
Source: FAA Safety Briefing, Sept/Oct 2016

It’s been 20 years, but I still remember my very first experience with Civil Air Patrol (CAP). I was in high school and went with a friend to the local airport to learn a little more about the nonprofit and Air Force Auxiliary. The idea that we — as kids — could volunteer for something useful and serve our local community in a unique way was inspiring. We were originally focused on saving lives through CAP’s search and rescue missions looking for missing aircraft.

Actually flying the aircraft hadn’t crossed my mind yet ... until the Army landed a Blackhawk helicopter in front of the CAP meeting area so the cadets could hop in and look around. I was hooked, and my love for aviation grew beyond what I had ever imagined possible. Here’s a look at what volunteering with CAP can do for your inner-aviator at any age.

For Ages 12-20

Civil Air Patrol’s youth program, better known as its cadet program, is where I began my journey with aviation. You can join CAP as a cadet if you are at least 12 years old and have not yet reached your 19th birthday. Cadets can stay in the program until they turn 21, as long as they have not entered active duty in the military and are enrolled in a school. The program’s four focus areas are leadership, aerospace, fitness, and character.

Every cadet is eligible for five flights in a powered aircraft (usually a single-engine Cessna), five flights in a glider aircraft, and an unlimited number of backseat flights in the airplane when conditions allow. These free orientation flights are intended to share the thrill of flying with young adults. Also, in partnership with the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), CAP orientation flights qualify cadets for free EAA Young Eagles Flight Plan benefits.

On a side note, qualified adult pilots are also needed to fly cadets on these flights, which is paid for by the Air Force. It’s a great way to build up flight hours while serving the local community.

Flying Solo

Cadets have the opportunity to apply for CAP flight academies for instruction in powered aircraft, gliders, hot air balloons, and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). For manned aircraft, cadets receive approximately 10 hours of flight instruction, ground school, and most solo before leaving.

“We provide our cadets with the foundational skills to become safe and proficient pilots and spark that lifelong passion for aviation,” explains Maj. Robert Bowden, director of CAP’s Johnson Flight Academy in Illinois, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. “It’s incredible to see the transition of a cadet who may have never flown in a small airplane to having the tools and knowledge to safely operate that aircraft ... and hopefully go on to earn a private pilot certificate.”

Nurturing that love for aviation is really what the flight academies are all about. Not every cadet solos or goes on to earn a pilot certificate, but they do gain a sense of accomplishment. “Success here illustrates that these cadets have accomplished something that less than one-half of one percent will ever do,” notes Lt. Col. Bob McDonnell, director of CAP’s Shirley Martin Powered Flight Academy in Texas.

“The academy is a passion for us,” said McDonnell, who is also a pilot for Delta in his day job. CAP flight instructors who volunteer their time come from all over the country to teach cadets and share their passion for aviation.

Civil Air Patrol’s goal is to increase the number of flight and academic scholarships available to qualified candidates. Since the cost of flight training is beyond the reach of most cadets, the Civil Air Patrol Foundation, which is a separate nonprofit that provides additional support for CAP activities not funded by Congressional appropriation, has prioritized support of CAP’s powered flight academy programs.

“While the goal was $50,000, the generosity of numerous groups allowed the [cadet flight scholarship] challenge to exceed this goal and make available additional funding for deserving cadets,” explains Don Rowland, CAP Chief Operating Officer. “The CAP Board of Governors issued a challenge to raise $25,000 to be matched with foundation funds
to provide full funding for the top graduates of CAP’s powered flight academies to obtain their private pilot certificates.”

Filling the Pilot Shortfall

The pipeline that historically produces airline pilots is shrinking, and the number of airline flights is increasing. The effects of this pilot shortage are already being felt by the regional airlines across the country. Civil Air Patrol is now committing resources to help combat the shortage.

For decades, the Air Cadet League of Canada — CAP’s sister cadet program to the north — has produced around 400 new private pilots a year at little or no cost to the cadet. That has resulted in two out of three Canadian airline pilots having been Air Cadets. Using this model, CAP is instituting a national advanced flight academy (NAFA) summer program,
which is a consortium of residential flight school campuses and aviation donors that together permit cadets to achieve a private pilot certificate.

“The goal is to provide 500 cadets a year with a private pilot certificate scholarship to greatly enhance the pool of eligible pilots for future aviation careers,” writes CAP National Commander Maj. Gen. Joe Vazquez in a recent letter to members. “For the summer of 2017, CAP will pay for five NAFA scholarships. Aviation donors (from major and regional airlines to aerospace corporations) have been solicited, and it is hoped that many more scholarships will be obtained for next year and beyond.”

For Ages 18 and Up

Flying in CAP isn’t just for the cadets. The fleet of more than 500 single-engine airplanes also has a non-combat operational Air Force mission to perform. As the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, CAP is part of the Air Force Total Force and is considered an “instrumentality of the United States” when performing missions for the federal government under Title 10 United States Code chapter 909. Volunteer pilots, right-seat observers, and aerial photographers are part of a team of CAP members serving in the skies over their communities.

CAP flies a variety of missions that give members a unique opportunity to serve our country. Last fiscal year, CAP performed more than 860 search and rescue missions and saved 69 lives. Aircrews routinely fly as simulated targets to allow military fighter jets and law enforcement helicopters to practice safe intercepts of small general aviation (GA) aircraft violating restricted airspace. CAP aircraft escort military drones through Class B airspace to meet FAA’s “see and avoid” requirement. And flying after natural or manmade disasters to take video and photos of damage is the new normal for CAP. After Hurricane Sandy, CAP aircrews took more than 158,000 images for FEMA.

With such a robust ops tempo, CAP recognizes that having pilots available for these missions is a must. CAP cadets and qualified mission pilots are therefore authorized to use CAP airplanes for flight instruction toward any FAA certificate or rating. With a few exceptions, adult members cannot receive initial flight training on powered aircraft. However, any CAP member is authorized to use CAP gliders and balloons for initial and transition flight instruction toward any FAA certificate or rating.

In order to fly CAP aircraft, pilots must pass a rigorous “Form 5” online exam and check ride. A flight check may be administered by a qualified CAP check pilot, or it may be administered by a FAA inspector, designated check airman, or designated pilot examiner. If it has been a while since you have flown, or if you need to get up to speed on the aircraft available to your local CAP squadron, you can fly with a CAP instructor in the CAP aircraft as preparation for the exam.

Being a CAP pilot has other benefits in the GA community. CAP flight procedures are becoming an industry standard. As an example, if you are current to fly for CAP, you’re current to rent with OpenAirplane, which is an online platform allowing FBOs and flight schools around the country to easily verify a pilot’s credentials and eliminate the cost of an additional check ride when a pilot wants to rent an aircraft away from home.

OpenAirplane’s Universal Pilot Checkout is based on CAP’s pilot standards. Unlike a flight review, it is a pass/fail demonstration evaluated against FAA practical test standards. Both on the ground and in the air, you’ll be demonstrating you can meet the standard. “CAP pilots consistently demonstrate a safety record 60 percent better than the rest of the pilots flying single engine airplanes under part 91. It’s this proven doctrine that enables us to offer CAP pilots access to our network,” explains Rod Rakic, co- founder and president of OpenAirplane.

Civil Air Patrol as an organization has also voluntarily adopted a GA-appropriate version of the FAA’s Safety Management System (SMS) approach to aviation safety. This is the formal, top-down, organization-wide approach to managing safety risk and assuring the effectiveness of safety risk controls. It includes systematic procedures, practices, and policies for the management of safety risk. Last year, the FAA published a rule that requires part 121 air carriers to develop and implement SMS in their companies. CAP is taking the lead in the GA community by implementing SMS. To learn more about SMS and how to implement it locally, go to

On a side note, pilots that participate in FAASTeam safety seminars can automatically count their training towards CAP safety requirements. Add your CAP ID number in your profile at Further, successful completion of a Form 5 exam can be counted towards completion of a phase of WINGS.

Educating the Community

CAP is charged by Congress with an educational mission, which is the source of its nonprofit status. According to Title 36 United States Code chapter 403, the organization will “provide aviation education and training especially to its senior and cadet members” and “encourage and foster civil aviation in local communities.”

Aerospace Education Members (AEM) enjoy many free educational opportunities ranging from receiving lesson plans to participating in a teacher orientation flight. This unique membership category is designed for educators or others involved in promoting aerospace education in classrooms, museums, or other youth organizations. A benefit to teachers is access to CAP’s STEM kits, which are used to inspire youth to explore careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These kits have already reached more than 150,000 K-12 students nationwide and CAP’s 25,000 cadets.

CAP has also expanded its youth leadership program curriculum to include K-6 students. Its Aerospace Connections in Education program is driven by grade-specific studies that enrich classroom aerospace, character education, and physical fitness for nearly 20,000 children in 34 states.

The FAA is also charged with preparing and inspiring the next generation of skilled professionals for the aviation/aerospace communities through its STEM Aviation and Space Education (AVSED) Outreach Program. In 2011, the FAA and CAP signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a “partnership in support of the FAA’s mission to support a safe, secure, and efficient aerospace system that contributes to national security and economic growth in the 21st century and CAP’s mission to carry out its Congressional mandate to encourage and aid citizens of the United States in contributing their efforts, services, and resources in developing aviation and to provide aviation education and training.” For more about AVSED, go to

If you are looking for a place to nurture your passion for aviation, joining Civil Air Patrol may be for you. Those who are between the ages of 12 to 20 have a great opportunity to learn to fly, and current pilots have a unique opportunity to enhance their skills and fly for the greater good of our country. CAP is about supporting America’s communities with emergency response, diverse aviation and ground services, youth development, and promotion of air, space and cyber power.

Looking back on the time I have spent in CAP as a cadet and a regular member, I can honestly say that I have flown in more types of aircraft than I can remember. I can’t think of any other organization that could have given me so much exposure to the aviation world — even more than the time I spent on active duty in the Air Force.

If you are interested in learning more, check out

Paul Cianciolo is an assistant editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and a rated aircrew member and public affairs officer with Civil Air Patrol.

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