Help in the skies

Civil Air Patrol took flight during WWII.

In the 1940’s prior to the United States entering World War II, civilian pilots were patrolling the east coast looking for German U-boats and doing their best to help defend America’s shores. They flew 24 million miles over two years and even sank two enemy submarines. This was the beginning of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). The CAP, made up of civilian volunteers with a desire to serve their community, is the official auxiliary of the United States Air Force. The core values of this non-profit organization are integrity, volunteer service, excellence and respect.  The CAP is best known for search and rescue missions but it also performs disaster relief operations, and thousands of young people are introduced to aviation through the CAP cadet program. Shawn Warneke of St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Cathedral High School in 2001. He had wanted to learn to fly from a very early age. At age 14, he became a cadet in the St. Cloud squadron of Minnesota Wing CAP. As he progressed through the program to his current rank of captain, he learned how to fly planes– but that was only the beginning. Warneke is also enthusiastic about the leadership and the team-building skills he has learned. “I had a real love for flying and my dad knew the squadron commander.  That is how I learned about CAP and the cadet program,” Warneke said. Cadets can be as young as twelve. Some young people may join because they have an interest in learning to fly. Some see it as a stepping stone to the military. Minnesota Wing CAP has about 25 squadrons overseen by Wing headquarters, according to Warneke.  The St. Cloud squadron has about 30 adult members (called seniors) and 40 cadets and they serve an area with an approximate 60 mile radius. “We’re the Air Force’s best-kept secret,” he said with a smile.    The Air Force provides aircraft and vans to the CAP. The local squadron is responsible for radio equipment, van maintenance and uniforms and gear for its members. The squadron applies for grants and does fundraising to cover these costs. All aircraft carry emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) in their black box. The ELT is a radio transmitter which, in event of a crash, broadcasts a distinctive signal which is intended to help rescuers locate the crash site. The signal is continually transmitted until it is properly shut down by authorities. Warneke explained that if a plane is missing in his squadron’s area, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia contacts them.  “When we get a call,” he said, “we activate the call tree to see who is available for a ground team.  By the time we get a ground team together, our response time is usually 1 to 1 ½ hours. When we have a location, we go to the search area and begin a line search.” An air crew may be able to help the ground crew if the weather is good. Warneke said 98 percent of their missions are false alarms. Even though an ELT signal should indicate a crash, they sometimes happen accidentally, causing a false alarm. A day that stands out in Warneke’s memory occurred in October, 2007. He got a call at 3 a.m. and was asked to be on an air crew to search for a missing plane. A University of North Dakota flight instructor and a student pilot were flying from St. Paul to Grand Forks, North Dakota. Air traffic control lost contact with them near Little Falls about 10 p.m. Warneke and his air crew headed for Little Falls where they circled the area for 5-6 hours with several other squadrons but they weren’t able to pick up a signal. There were 50 CAP members and seven aircraft searching throughout the day.  Warneke returned home at 2 p.m. and immediately got a call asking if he would join the ground team, which he did. The twin engine plane was found later that afternoon with its nose down in a swamp near Cushing, northwest of Little Falls.  Unfortunately, there were no survivors.  The plane was later hauled to Camp Ripley for an investigation. Two days later when his squadron got a call, Warneke was on a ground team sent to the Camp Ripley area to locate an ELT signal.  At Camp Ripley, his team discovered the same plane emitting ELT signals. “It was eerie being there and seeing the same plane,” said Warneke. He didn’t know if the ELT hadn’t been shut down or why it had gone off. CAP members are passionate about their mission and serving their community. Warneke has a wife and a six year old daughter and he admits that his involvement with CAP takes time away from them. But his family is supportive. “They understand that someone may be out there waiting for me to show up,” he said. Besides assisting on many search and rescue missions, Warneke was also part of a team that did sandbagging in the Fargo area during the spring flood of 2009. He has also worked at large air shows, including the show held every year in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Warneke said that there are 2-4 people on an air crew depending on the aircraft.  Besides the mission pilot, there is a mission scanner who operates radios and GPS, and the mission observer who looks out the window for abnormalities on the ground which may lead to a crash site. Warneke is qualified to be a mission scanner and a mission observer. “I can fly the plane, but not on a mission,” he explained. It takes a lot of hours of training to become the mission pilot. Less than one-fifth of CAP members are pilots or aircrew. Members come from all backgrounds and they are needed to fill many roles including manpower and leadership to disaster relief organizations and serving as mentors to the young cadets.  The CAP provides all the on- the-job training needed to do a job, Warneke emphasized. Major Dan Warneke, Shawn’s father, became a member of CAP about ten years ago, a few years after his son joined. His primary responsibility has been fundraising and Dan said that he has raised about $10,000 a year, amounting to over $100,000 during that period. “I enjoy it,” he said.  “It’s given me a chance to meet people from all around the community and to get to know some very charitable people.” Dan said that the single largest fundraising event is the fly-in pancake breakfast held during Granite City Days, St. Cloud’s annual festival held in June. As he looked toward the future and eventually to retirement, Dan said he was concerned about how funds would be raised to ensure future stability of St. Cloud’s CAP. “Not everyone is interested in shaking trees for money every month,” he said. So, a few years ago, they partnered with Central Minnesota Community Foundation and the “Friends of CAP” was established.  Individuals can make contributions to CAP. The funds raised and managed by the Foundation are used for the purchase of uniforms and supplies, transportation costs, training, etc. Anyone who is interested in learning more about or joining the local CAP is welcome to attend a meeting. The St. Cloud squadron meets weekly on Monday evenings at 6:30 p.m. at the St. Cloud airport at the National Guard facility.

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