When I was doing my flight training at Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio, I would constantly see a couple red white and blue Cessna airplanes parked on the ramp proudly marked “Civil Air Patrol.” I honestly had no idea what CAP was, and when I turned to my CFI and asked him the response was “I dunno, sky cops?” So I looked into it a little more, attended a couple meetings, and pretty quickly realized that getting into the Civil Air Patrol might be the single best decision a brand new private pilot can make. Why? let me give you three reasons . . .
Free Flight Hours
The very first thing I realized about CAP was that I could milk the heck out of it for flight hours.
When I passed the check ride I barely had 60 hours to my name in the airplane, and for just about anything I want to do in flying I’m going to need a heck of a lot more. Instrument rating? 50 hours cross country (I had 6 at the time). Commercial certificate? 250 hours. ATP? 1,500 hours. Getting that all on my own would be massively expensive.
Even if I didn’t want to move up in the certificate world, getting more flight hours is still a pretty important goal. I’ve been reading The Killing Zone by Paul Craig, and he makes a convincing argument that pilots below 350 hours have a disproportionately high accident rate. Getting over that hump was an important goal of mine, simply for my own personal safety and the safety of my passengers.
The basic purpose of the Civil Air Patrol is to provide a search and rescue capability using cheap, slow, light airplanes like the Cessna 172. It costs a ton less money to run a C172 for an hour than a fully equipped Blackhawk helicopter, enough that it basically justifies the entire program. They also fill in for disaster relief and other roles, too.
In order to support those missions, there’s tons of opportunities for flight hours. From maintenance missions bringing the planes to the shop and back to training flights and even transport runs, there’s usually more flying to be done than pilots to do it. And since the program is run by the U.S. Air Force and funded by taxpayer money, the flight hours while on these missions are 100% free for the pilots.
Even if you aren’t on a mission, the flight hours are cheaper than any FBO. The planes in the system are available for rent at a fixed price (dry — you need to fill it back up when you’re done), and the math works out well in the pilot’s favor. Plus, the planes are typically better maintained and in better shape than publicly available aircraft. Its kind of like a private flying club that anyone can join.
Flying With a Purpose
Building time in an airplane can be an incredibly boring undertaking. If the sole purpose of your flight is to crank the Hobbes meter a little further, then there’s not much excitement and not much training going on. Boring a hole through the sky isn’t fun, and isn’t challenging.
With CAP flights, there’s always a purpose to the trip. And more often than not, its an incredible experience.
The very first flight I took with CAP was an F-16 intercept training mission at night. We were asked to head out to a MOA and fly between two points, allowing F-16 airplanes to practice intercepting us as if we were a small plane that had wandered into a TFR. While we were still boring holes through the sky straight and level, the light show we were treated to outside the cockpit window was absolutely priceless. In addition, it gave us some great practice spotting traffic in low light conditions and navigating in a completely new area.
Even if the mission is expressly for boring holes through the sky (repositioning aircraft from one place to another), there’s a much greater variety of places that you can be asked to go than with an airplane you rented from the FBO for a couple hours. One reposition flight I did involved flying to Corpus Christi, an airport I had never flown to, and which was a full two hours from my usual home base. Flying that without CAP would have been costly and difficult to arrange, but with CAP all I had to do was show up.
That’s not even mentioning the search and rescue missions. Talk about flying with a purpose . . .
Ongoing Training and Safety Education
Every other meeting in the squadron I joined is dedicated to some aspect of aviation safety. Whether its simply a refresher on cold weather operations when winter sets in for two weeks here in south Texas or a discussion of some accident and how to avoid the same mistakes, there’s always something I can learn from the meeting and apply to my own personal flying.
The training goes beyond just the safety meeting, though. The squadron I’m with uses a G1000 glass cockpit, and I trained on steam gauge dials. No problem — they helpfully organized a training session to transition t the G1000, free of charge. And apparently there’s an IFR basics course coming up that they are also offering for free.
It doesn’t stop on the ground. Remember that re-position flight I was talking about? It was scheduled during a day where the weather was hard IFR, and being a VFR only pilot I was pretty sure that I would be spending the entire flight in the back seat. Imagine my surprise when one of the older pilots I was flying with told me that he didn’t feel like flying, and to hop in the left front seat! Turns out he was a CFII, and not only was I able to fly but I was able to log 1.2 glorious hours of actual IMC time — my first ever.
Instruction in a CAP airplane is possible, but it is expressly against the rules to use CAP planes for any business whatsoever. So if you get some training from a CFI or CFII, they cannot charge you a single dime. Its a wonderful arrangement for low-timers.
The point, I guess, is that there’s some huge benefits to joining up with CAP as a fresh young pilot. From the free flight hours to the purpose based missions, there’s always opportunities to learn and become a better pilot. The barrier to entry is extremely low, the people are friendly and knowledgeable, and the planes are top-notch. Why would you not?