Searching, rescuing and not getting lost

Mission: For 59 years, the Civil Air Patrol has been finding missing people, downed planes and emergency beacons. It's all in the training.

April 18, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Lugging backpacks and radio-wave receivers, a handful of teen-agers marched off the beaten path in Patapsco Valley State Park under orders that need never be put into words: Don't get lost.

Civil Air Patrol members can't afford to lose their way. They're supposed to find those who do.

Known for acts of World War II daring, the Air Force's civilian auxiliary has for most of its 59 years gone rather quietly about the vital business of finding missing people, downed planes and squawking emergency beacons. Maryland has 23 squadrons. Youths -- not just retirees -- are counted in its ranks.

In Howard County, about four dozen participants train like a military unit for the handful of missions they know will come each year.

"There's a lot to remember," said Lt. Col. Ron Whitehead, who joined the squadron at the end of a 26-year Air Force career. "Without practice, you will forget."

Because Civil Air Patrol missions involve more walking than flying, Whitehead and other Howard squadron members gathered Saturday in Patapsco Valley State Park for eight hours of orienteering and survival skills.

The adults offered advice as teen-age participants studied topographic maps, set up makeshift tents -- with a combination of tarps, ponchos and duct tape -- and tracked down an emergency locator transmitter hidden in the woods.

"It's down that way," announced Dan Haack, 17, of Columbia, hiking under towering trees in pursuit.

Emergency locator transmitters, found in private planes and boats, send off a signal after a crash. But they're often triggered accidentally, which means that many Civil Air Patrol searches are responses to false alarms.

Still, squadron members don't want to take chances. That's why the Howard participants practice the complicated art of tracking the transmitters.

First, a group of four high-schoolers had to figure out this beacon's general location, no small task in a park as large as Patapsco Valley. Using receivers that pick up the signal, they worked their way around the McKeldin Area in Marriottsville, taking readings, checking compasses and marking a map.

When the lines on the map converged, success seemed close.

The group headed off a paved path toward the woodsy location, listening to the hypnotic woop-woop-woop of their receivers for any changes in volume.

"It's fluctuating," said Avinash Chandra, 16, of Columbia, pausing to turn a full circle and frowning in concentration. "Is it me, or am I getting the same thing 360?"

"Sounds to me like it's still up, farther up the hill," Whitehead said.

Sarah Haack, 18 -- Dan's sister, and a pilot in training -- found their target near the top, on a log and covered with leaves.

Total search time: a little more than an hour.

Lt. Col. Kevin Redman stood over the transmitter, sunlight filtering down on him through the trees, and suggested that they consider themselves lucky.

"I've done this going through a swamp in the middle of the night -- in March," he said, chuckling.

Redman joined the Howard County squadron at age 14 with dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. Twenty-one years later, he's still involved -- not for the sake of flying, but because he grew to love emergency services. An optical engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, he misses work occasionally to track down missing people and aircraft.

"I've been on over a hundred search missions, all hours," he said. "I've been on searches that lasted a week, a week and a half. Everybody's got hobbies. Search and rescue became my hobby."

Civil Air Patrol has a long history of searching and rescuing. Formed seven days before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the group added a line of defense to U.S. borders: Pilots patrolled the Atlantic coast for Nazi U-boats, plucked crash victims from the water and sank two enemy submarines.

Civil Air Patrol has more than 53,000 members, a third of whom are young people. Squadrons across the country participate in 85 percent of the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center's inland search-and-rescue missions.

The organization doesn't have the name recognition of some nationwide groups, especially ones that develop young adults. But the Howard participants don't let that bother them. They figure they're pretty good at what they do.

Especially the not getting lost part.

"When the Boy Scouts go out and do their orienteering training, we go out and stand by," Whitehead said with a grin. "Just in case."

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