Exercise had LA airspace buzzing

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CAP > Drill provides valuable experience in advance of need

By Tris DeRoma

The Los Alamos branch of the Civil Air Patrol played host to at least 10 other New Mexico-based squadrons Saturday, all in an effort to improve the New Mexico CAP’s safety and search techniques.At least several times a year, the state’s CAP squadrons collaborate on joint emergency exercises centering on a specific theme or goal.

In this weekend’s exercise, the squadrons carried out an assessment exercise. Their task was to document the area geography in the wake of a disastrous rainstorm, complete with washed out bridges, roads, dams and phone lines.

“In this simulation we’re going through, the majority of Los Alamos has no power. We have open fires to the north, because we have damaged buildings and because they tried to restore the power they caught on fire,” Incident Commander Lloyd Voight explained. “We also have aircraft in the air checking road networks as well as looking for a lost church group that was hiking somewhere north of Los Alamos.”

To Voight and others monitoring the situation, though, no one was in any real danger, it still wasn’t taken lightly.

“We do exercises like this obviously to train ourselves,” David Finley, the public affairs officer for CAP’s New Mexico wing, said. “We need to be proficient in our skills; each of us has a particular job we are doing.”

According to Finley, each operation involves every aspect of the organization, whether that’s logistics, communication, operations or finance.

“People taking part in this exercise are fulfilling all of these functions, and just like you need to do with any other job, they are here to practice,” Finley said.

For the exercise, the CAP set up two areas of command in town. The incident command center was based at Crossroads Bible Church and they had another center established at the airport.

The incident command center was where all the information came in from the aircraft in the air as well as ground crews.

Finley said their main task was to prioritize each piece of information and act on it accordingly and to treat it like it was real situation.

“For every job, there is a checklist of tasks that you either have to learn or do under supervision,” Finley said, adding that it’s another way personnel can advance within the CAP. “After two missions, you go from being a trainee to a qualified member who can do the job without being supervised.”

Operating radios, being an extra set of eyes or a “scanner” or “observer” in a flight crew or a ground team were just some of the jobs being evaluated on Saturday.

At the end of the exercise, “after action reports” were completed and a general briefing was conducted to see how well things went.

“We’ll then look at the situation over the next few days and see what lessons there are to be learned,” Finley said. “If something went wrong, you want to know, so you can learn how to fix it.”

Since the Los Alamos CAP squadron was hosting this exercise, they were also heavily involved. Los Alamos Squadron Commander Annette Peters was on hand to see that everything was running smoothly for her team.

“It’s been busy,” she said. “We’re just trying to make sure that everybody that needs to train in certain areas get connected with the trainers. Everything seems to be running pretty smoothly.”

Sometimes, these types of collaborative exercises include a real goal in them as well, mostly ones that help in offset costs for the real search and rescue missions as well as day-to-day operations.

During Saturday’s mission, the CAP planes actually did take aerial photographs.

“That’s one of the things we do for local agencies,” Finley said. “We do it for local and county governments, police and fire if need be, that’s one of the services we can provide.”

And that’s whether it’s a real emergency or just an exercise, he added.

The most dramatic role the CAP played on a national level recently was with the Gulf oil spill. According to Finley, the CAP squadrons based in the area took thousands and thousands of images as the oil spread throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

“Then, during Hurricane Sandy they did all the photographing along the coastline for all the local agencies so they knew what kind of damage they were looking at,” Finley said.

Locally, recent CAP tasks involved documenting insect infestations in New Mexico’s national forests and park areas.

Lloyd said taking real photos also helps them practice fulfilling real customer demand.

“We analyze the images to make sure the quality of the image we provide meets the customer base, because each customer wants something different,” he said. Lloyd added that all the images that are taken and then provided to local and national databases where government and private agencies can access them.

While the exercise was meant to train the CAP’s senior staff, the CAP’s cadets, and the organization’s youth branch, also got to participate. Some of their jobs included hand delivering messages and files between the CAP’s senior command, as well as guiding planes coming in for a landing or taking off at the airport, a job known as “flight line marshaling.”

“Even the cadets that we have carrying messages back and forth have to be trained for that and complete a checklist that’s reviewed by a supervisor,” Finley said. “We are trying to train here just like we’d operate in a actual emergency.”

Capt. Griffin Lane was supervising the cadets at the airport, checking how Cadets Haydon Cummings, Jack Stafford and Erick Lang were doing.

“They are doing very well,” Lang said, as she watched her team ready planes for take-off.

People usually join a CAP squadron when they’re in their youth. Cadets usually range in age from 12-20. During their years as a cadet, each cadet has an opportunity to advance in rank and become proficient in basic concepts of leadership, aerospace, fitness and character development. They also learn how to fly too, usually starting off learning how to fly gliders before moving on to powered aircraft.

“I joined because I became really interested in flying for the military, so this is great opportunity,” said Stafford. “It can also help you for college, or the Air Force.”

Griffin said Lang, Cummings and Stafford will use their experience as flight line marshals to advance with their CAP squadron as well.

“They train to do the job so eventually they will become an officer,” Griffin said.

Though Finley couldn’t give precise numbers, he said the CAP participates in at least a few real life rescue missions a year.

“It’s been downed aircraft, lost hikers, snowbound vehicles; situations where people are really in danger,” Finley said.
However, this situation, he said, is mostly about documenting terrain in a flood-ravaged area.

At the airport, that center was keeping track of at least 10 CAP aircraft, which were mostly specially equipped Cessna airplanes outfitted for search and rescue missions. About five of them were physically based at the Los Alamos Airport, while the rest were directed by the airport on where to go and what to photograph.

The CAP is actually a civilian branch of the United States Air Force. It is the Air Force that funds the CAP as well as maintains and equips its fleet of search and rescue airplanes.