A fading aerial watchdog

Future: The Carroll County commissioners want to completely cut the budget for the county Civil Air Patrol in two years. The squadron's aircraft is seldom used for search and rescue.

May 12, 1999|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Once considered the watchdogs of democracy, the Civil Air Patrol -- a remnant of World War II and the Red Scare -- finds its days in Carroll County might be numbered.

The county commissioners would like to slash funding for the local squadron by 50 percent in the coming fiscal year, from $5,000 to $2,500. Next year, the group's funding would be deleted from the budget completely.

"We are like the volunteer fire department that doesn't get enough fires," says Maj. Stephen O'Neill McNamara, 54, a veteran pilot who joined the Carroll County squadron last year.

In its heyday during World War II, the volunteer auxiliary patrolled the skies over New Jersey, North Carolina, Delaware and the Gulf of Mexico, searching for German submarines.

But with the close of the war and the fall of communism, the Civil Air Patrol needed to update its mission. Its congressionally chartered assignment has been expanded to include cadet programs, aerospace education and emergency services.

"It's based on the military model, though discipline isn't a big component of the Civil Air Patrol," says McNamara. "We're not looking to take bad boys and girls and make them model citizens. We're looking to take youths who have the potential to be model citizens and make sure they don't choose another path."

The Pennsylvania resident says he crosses the Mason-Dixon Line to count himself a member of the Carroll squadron because it has the best plane in the Maryland Wing -- a Cessna 172 Skyhawk that flies steady, even in updrafts. The Air Force bought the plane in 1985 for $60,000. It is one of 12 aircraft in the state's Civil Air Patrol, which has 26 squadrons.

"At the time I joined, the plane was being underused," says McNamara. "There was only one other pilot in the squadron."

Though that number has grown to seven, McNamara acknowledges that the aircraft is still seldom used in search-and-rescue missions. In the past year, it was deployed no more than five times, he says.

No one, not even the squadron commander, can recall the last time the Carroll County Civil Air Patrol found a missing person.

"I'm not really sure when our last successful search was, to tell you the truth," says Capt. Christian Ready, squadron leader. "In my four years, we've not successfully found somebody."

Today, 36 of the 51 members of the Carroll squadron are adolescent aviation buffs.

Their main role in the county is crowd control at the annual air show in Westminster, although they are always ready to lend a hand during snowstorms and other emergencies, manning shelters and searching for missing people.

Most squadron members are ground crew who take cardiopulmonary resuscitation classes and practice rappelling.

"We train harder than the National Guard and don't get paid anything," says Ready, who spends nearly every weekend preparing for unforeseen disaster.

Adds McNamara: "To keep an aircraft is an expense. Many small townships don't have the resources to do that. To have us at their beck and call is, in my mind, to have a very, very cheap insurance policy."

The commissioners seem to agree. They say canceling the county's "insurance policy" was a matter of sound financial planning, not a criticism of the squadron.

"With money as tight as it is, there's always a need to find more funding for capital projects," says Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "No one wants to pay higher taxes to build schools and roads, so we've had to take a firm attitude toward funding agencies that are not relative to the government process.

"I'm sure the Civil Air Patrol will justify their existence, and they do a good job, but there's a lot of volunteer organizations that do a good job and are able to raise money through fund-raisers," he says.

To that, Ready quips: "Know anyone in the market for an aerospace T-shirt?"

Pub Date: 5/12/99

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