by Chris McMahan
photography by Janelle Kluz
The cold March night is not going to stop the cadets. It is drill time. They each stand as straight as an arrow in a formation practiced time and time again. Their youthful commanders check to make sure their blue uniforms are in order. Once the drill is finished, they head back inside from the brisk spring air to greet Lieutenant Colonel Ken Hartwell. “Hello, sir,” each cadet says respectfully. The respect given by each cadet is genuine. The experience is authentic. One could almost forget they are teenagers.
Squadron 64, which meets weekly at Brackett Airport in La Verne, is the cadet program of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). Funds that pay for the volunteer organization are allocated through the United States Air Force. In turn, an incident commander and project officer are responsible for coming up with a local budget. The cadet program is just one component of CAP, with emergency services and aerospace education being offered to boys and girls with an interest in aviation or in joining the military. The youngest someone can join the program is 12, with an age limit of 18. However, the senior members of CAP, including Hartwell, prefer children to be between 13 and 14.
Hartwell says that while they do accept 18 year olds, they have limited opportunity to grow with the program. “It’s tough for an 18 year old to take orders from a 13-year-old sergeant,” he says. Aspiring cadets go through an interview process with their parents, who pay for the uniforms, and then are given a three-week orientation period to see whether they are interested in staying with the program. The cadet program can help provide an advantage to those interested in joining the Air Force Academy since 10 percent of new classes at the Academy were CAP cadets. Leadership for all cadets, irrespective of future military plans, is the most important aspect of the program. “Even if they become dentists, we want to make sure they are the best dentists,” Hartwell says with a smile. He adds that CAP uses the military model because it helps provide attention to detail and leads the youth to learn from their mistakes. “It teaches you the weaknesses within yourself and gives you the tools to fix them,” says cadet commander Christina Granillo, age 18.
Granillo joined CAP six years ago because she was once interested in the Marines. She is now a pre-med student at Liberty University and will be joining the adult program soon. “Being able to get to know the kids when you see them pass that test; it’s a privilege to teach them,” she says.
Once cadets turn 18, they have the option to join the senior program, which includes more responsibilities. Besides assisting the cadets, they perform duties with search and rescue. Members of the adult program take turns answering calls from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when a plane crashes. Unpaid volunteers staff the program, a model that started just a week before the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.
The Great Depression had severely weakened the country’s Air Force, so pilots offered to use their own aircraft to help with the war effort. “We had no resources to apply to protecting ourselves; we were stretched very thin,” Hartwell says. “So civilian pilots decided that they would pitch in and help and got permission to do a civil air patrol and patrol the coast looking for submarines.” CAP was credited with sinking two Nazi submarines after the volunteer pilots gained permission to carry bombs. Since World War II, their involvement in military operations is minimal, but the opportunities to succeed in the Air Force are still there.
Lieutenant Colonel Hartwell himself has experienced the benefits of CAP. He originally joined the Arcadia squadron in 1966 at age 15 as a tuba playing member of its marching band. After a year, the marching band folded, and Hartwell transferred to Squadron 64 in La Verne, where he became the cadet commander until he was drafted at age 18 into the Army during the Vietnam War. His passion, however, was in flying. “I enlisted in the Air Force for a better opportunity,” he says. “And because of my Civil Air Patrol grade, I was able to go into the Air Force with a stripe already and went to work for Air Force Intelligence.” After serving in Southeast Asia, Hartwell came back to the states and CAP. “CAP helped me so much in my military experience that I wanted to payback what it gave to me in the terms of self-confidence and success skills.” He joined the ground team for search and rescue missions for 25 years before concentrating on the cadet program.
Under Hartwell, the La Verne program has flourished. It has won “Squadron of the Year” honors multiple times, but Hartwell says that winning awards is not the main focus. “We try and maintain the quality and worry more about the elements of the program then we do winning any awards or anything like that. That is not what we are really here for.”
And while the mission statements of CAP have not changed, certain aspects have. When volunteer pilots first started flying for CAP, they would use their own aircraft. Hartwell says this would bring up concerns on whether the aircraft were properly maintained. Pilots now operate nearly exclusively with corporate owned aircraft. Technology, however, might be the biggest change. “Technology has changed tremendously since I joined. We had not put a man on the moon yet,” Lieutenant Colonel Robert Miller, a 50 year member, says. Miller has served as squadron commander 10 times and is also a member of Squadron 20 in Chino Hills.
“Probably the biggest reason I’ve been with CAP for five decades is I’ve made CAP a way of life,” he says. Deputy Commander James Bertz, with CAP for four years, and who performed search and rescue for 10 years in Madera County and with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, agrees technological advances have made it easier to find crash sites. Now, almost all planes use an emergency locator transponder (ELT), which sends off a signal when a plane crashes. Before the 1960s, no such technology existed, making it extremely difficult to find downed aircraft. The only drawback is that the signal could go off when a plane lands hard, as happened in February 2017. After suffering from engine trouble, a pilot was forced to land hard, triggering his ELT near Borrego Springs. The pilot, using maps, tracked his way to a highway, where he hitchhiked home. Meanwhile, search and rescue frantically put a team together to search for a crash site. “We ended up searching for it first thing in the morning, and we sent a ground team there, and there’s nobody there,” Bertz says.
Radar data is useful as well. Bertz says that during a January night mission, a plane went missing after taking off from Tehachapi, 35 miles southeast of Bakersfield. They used the raw data from radar to track the plane’s flight path. “We had to differentiate between all the other airplanes that took off from Tehachapi—there were three of them—but we could tell which one was his plane,” he says. “And then we saw the radar disappear.” The search team saw that the radar disappeared near Lake Hughes. Since it is rare for CAP to perform missions at night, Bertz scrambled together a ground team the following morning to search a mountaintop. The search team aircraft was able to spot the downed plane and directed a ground team to the site. Unfortunately, the pilot did not survive the crash. “Before, if we didn’t have that radar data, we would be flying all the desolate areas between Tehachapi and Los Angeles,” Bertz says, “which is a lot more than just that little mountain top we were looking on. We narrowed it down to just a couple of square miles based on the radar data, and we found him within a matter of minutes.”
During some missions, pilots of downed aircraft are not the only one’s facing danger. So are the volunteers. On a recent search and rescue mission in Ventura, a sheriff’s department volunteer was bitten by a rattlesnake. “We were able to call it in and get an air ambulance rescue to him right away,” Bertz says. The quick-to-act search and rescue team were able to swiftly communicate for help with their advanced technology. “If the sheriff’s department didn’t have us, then someone would have had to hike up to a hilltop somewhere to get line of sight over to the base, and that could have been hours,” Bertz says.
Leading search and rescue and CAP are steadfast jobs taken on by dedicated volunteers. For those like Bertz, Miller and Hartwell, helping people just seems to be in their blood. “I like giving back to the community,” Bertz says. “I’ve always had this character flaw where I always want to help people.” Miller has a simple question for those on the fence about joining. “Do you want to make a difference?”