As part of an effort to enhance homeland security, the Civil Air Patrol is conducting exercises nationwide to test capabilities for disaster relief and response to terrorist attacks. This weekend 21 fixed wing propeller planes will take to the air across the state of Texas to test statewide coordination. This is one of the first exercises that involve several bases working in unison.
On Saturday and Sunday civilian volunteer pilots operating from Houston to Amarillo will test their reconnaissance and emergency communication systems. Captain Michael Fjetland of Texas Wing Group 13 here in Houston says this is the first time the Civil Air Patrol has done a statewide exercise using planes operating from several bases.
"This is a coordinated effort across the state with 21 aircraft, probably about five-to-nine different groups involved so that you can respond in a coordinated fashion rather than piecemeal to a major event of whatever kind, whether it be a terrorist attack or a hurricane," he said.
Captain Fjetland says Civil Air Patrol planes can send information and even video images back to the Texas state Emergency Operations Center in Austin to assist in the response to any type of disaster. He says the squadrons may also use special technical equipment specifically designated for anti-terrorism missions.
"We have radiation detection equipment that we are getting for potential radiation disasters or even smuggling of a nuclear weapon, as well as these other programs," explained Captain Fjetland.
Captain Fjetland says in a recent test of a radiation detection device by a Civil Air Patrol unit, a container with radioactive material was detected from the air within 15 minutes of the plane being deployed to the scene. He says the Civil Air Patrol operates as the auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force in such exercises as this. He says volunteer pilots and ground crew staff perform many disaster relief and humanitarian missions every year that would be difficult or expensive for the Air Force to do.
Now, Captain Fjetland says, the Civil Air Patrol is also taking on an important role in homeland defense and assisting law enforcement operations. In 1986, Congress authorized use of Civil Air Patrol planes and personnel in the fight against illicit drug smuggling and the planes flown by civilian volunteers have been involved in numerous air surveillance missions.
There are more than 62,000 members of the Civil Air Patrol nationwide operating 550 aircraft in eight geographical regions. It has the world's largest fleet of single combustion-engine fixed wing airplanes and also operates one of the most extensive communication systems in the United States.