Air patrol: Eye in sky, classroom on ground

Posted: October 12, 2013

The Winchester Star

A 2005 Cessna 182 belonging to the Civil Air Patrol takes off from Winchester Regional Airport during a recent exercise. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
CAP Senior Airmen Cadets Dyllan Gillespy (left), 16, and his brother Seth, 14, of Front Royal raise the American flag outside the CAP hangar at the Winchester airport.
CAP Maj. Al Bergeron of Winchester is the squadron commander of the Winchester Composite Squadron. The organization provides emergency services, cadet programs and aerospace education.
CAP Col. David Crawford of Raleigh-Durham, N.C., prepares to fly a mission from the Winchester airport. Crawford is the North Carolina wing commander.
Civil Air Patrol member Jay Langley of Raleigh-Durham, N.C., performs a preflight fuel check at Winchester Regional Airport on the 2005 Cessna 182 airplane he was planning to use during a tri-wing exercise involving members from Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)


For more than 70 years, members of the Civil Air Patrol have helped people in need, whether they’re lost hikers or victims of fires or floods.

Winchester’s division of the CAP — called the Winchester Composite Squadron — houses its aircraft at Winchester Regional Airport. Its members fly missions for the Department of Homeland Security, conduct searches and assist in firefighting.

The CAP also trains children and teenage cadets to carry on the organization’s legacy.

“Everything we do is built around aerospace, aviation and leadership skills, with a military [and] Air Force protocol attached,” said Maj. Al Bergeron, the Winchester squadron commander.

The squadron has about 50 cadets (who can range in age from 12 to 21) and 37 senior officers (18 and older).

It is one of 29 squadrons around the state. Virginia has more than 1,700 CAP members and the nation has more than 60,000.

Local squadrons are mostly unaffected by the federal government shutdown. A notice on the squadron’s website states that the group will “continue to meet normally, training cadets and conducting aerospace education programs ... two critical missions we can accomplish without federal funding.”

The beginnings

CAP was formed shortly before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

Its members served under the War Department’s Army Air Corps during World War II. The organization sank two enemy submarines off the U.S. coast and helped to rescue crash victims, according to its history.

Congress permanently established the CAP as the auxiliary of the Air Force in 1948.

CAP members handle about 90 percent of inland search and rescue operations and respond to natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires and floods.

Bergeron and other CAP members helped firefighters during the three-month fire in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina in 2011.

“The fire service could not stay out there unless they had [communications],” Bergeron said. “They had to be able to talk to their ground teams because of the fire, and they just didn’t know where it was going. So what we were able to do was put up missions from [6 a.m. to 9 p.m.]; we put up airplanes in this area and we flew what was called a repeater in the back seat.”

The repeaters were able to transmit photos and information about the fire to units on the ground.

“We flew in this restricted airspace so the signals would go from hand-held [devices], up to the repeater and back down to the ground station,” Bergeron said.

Why they serve

The cadets and senior members who make up the Winchester Composite Squadron came to the organization for various reasons.

Some want to serve their country. Others love to fly.

“I saw an article in the paper about [the CAP] around the end of seventh grade and I decided to look into it and I found it really interesting,” said 2nd Lt. Eric Arnesen, 18, of Front Royal.

“I joined, mostly because of the cadet programs and being part of a organization bigger than yourself. And I’ve always been interested in flying, so that got me going as well.”

Longtime friends and a family member helped to get 2nd Lt. Sierra Baumhoefener, a 17-year-old Frederick County resident, involved with the CAP.

“My old friends — I had moved [to the county] from Iowa — and I knew they were in it, so my brother, who’s also in the program, got me into it,” she said. “[I joined] mostly because just because of the flying and the cadet programs.”

Cadets receive five one-hour orientation rides in powered CAP aircraft and gliders that, according to Arnesen, “really open your eyes to the world of aviation.”

After completing the orientation rides and participating in cadet camps, CAP members can take part in additional training such as glider or pararescue school, Baumhoefener added.

“[CAP] gives you an opportunity to have access to those kinds of programs,” she said.

Apart from helping cadets to log airtime, the program can teach them lessons they can use as they progress through life.

“It’s definitely taught me how to be a leader,” Arnesen said. “Not always leading other people, but being a leader in myself, always pushing for more out of myself.”

He added that the cadet program also helped him to develop social and public speaking skills.

“A lot of confidence”

Baumhoefener agreed that CAP helped her to develop.

“It opens up your personality a lot. It teaches you integrity and volunteer service ... and also gives you a lot of confidence.”

She would “highly suggest” that people join CAP once they are able to as 12-year-olds.

“That age group is really a good one to target because it’s kind of where you’re a little awkward and you’re going into high school or middle school and [CAP] definitely helps the confidence and adds a lot to your resume and personal life,” Baumhoefener said.

Several of the squadron’s senior members — such as Helene Matassa, who lives near Woodstock — become involved with the CAP because of their children’s participation in the organization.

“It’s not about promotions or anything for me like that,” she said. “For me, it’s because my daughter does this and it’s an excellent program for teens, it really is. It gives them so many skills that they wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

While Bergeron became active in the CAP several years ago because his son joined, the squadron commander spent some of his formative years as a cadet growing up in New Jersey.

“I went through [CAP] as a teenager and absolutely loved the program; my whole teenaged life was the Civil Air Patrol,” he said.

“I learned how to fly ... when I was a cadet. I had to wait [until my 16th birthday] to be able to [fly solo], and in New Jersey you had to be 17 to drive a car, so I had to drive my bicycle to the airport to fly. But Civil Air Patrol taught me and I used their airplane to learn.”

CAP challenges

Like many volunteer and community organizations, the CAP faces membership challenges.

“It’s a constant rotational battle on getting new members, getting new cadets and — once you get them — you have to get them through the [training] system,” Bergeron said. “We provide ... I guess 85, 90 percent [of training] in-house.”

Officers also must find ways to keep cadets and senior members energized and motivated, he added.

“All of us are volunteers that are here tonight,” Bergeron said. “This is my time that I could be at home drinking a cold beer, but I choose to be here because I think this is our future, these young men and women.”

First Lt. David Weik, the squadron’s public information officer, added that the CAP conducts what amounts to a constant recruiting process.

“You have to get new members because you have to keep [the squadron] vibrant,” he said. “In order to keep it vibrant, you have to bring in new blood all the time.

“People get bored with it — maybe they have other interests take over — so you have to bring more people in,” Weik added.

Joining CAP

The Winchester Composite Squadron is always looking for volunteers, and anyone with an interest in areas ranging from aircraft maintenance to communications to administration can help the CAP, Bergeron said.

Members pay dues to join.

The squadron meets for three hours every Tuesday night, with most meetings held in the Cherry-Beasley Readiness Center, Winchester’s National Guard Ar mory on Pendleton Drive.

Cadets work on fitness and drill maneuvers during meetings and have a rotating schedule of classes that cover aerospace education, emergency services, character development and physical training.

Anyone interested in joining the Winchester Composite Squadron can email

Additional information about the Winchester squadron is available at, and information about the CAP  nationwide is available at

— Contact Matt Armstrong at