Civil Air Patrol

Wisconsin’s Eyes in the Sky

As Printed in Our Wisconsin (Feb-March 2013 issue) and used with permission.

Major Peter Sherrill, pilot for Civil Air Patrol, Door County Senior Squadron, their the squadron's plane.

Major Peter Sherrill, pilot for Civil Air Patrol, Door County Senior Squadron, their the squadron’s plane.

Relax, Door County vacationers – someone is watching over you…from 1,000 feet.

Sturgeon Bay, Wis. – I was ready to watch the 10 o’clock news when the call came in. The U.S. Air Force’s satellites had picked up a signal from an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT).

That’s a distress call from a plane or boat, and when I’m called, it’s my job to help. During the day I work as a physician, but on my off hours I’m a pilot for the Wisconsin Wing of the Civil Air Patrol.

We fly out of Green Bay, but at times we operate out of Sturgeon Bay. That was the case on the night of this patrol.

We took off and flew to the west shore of Green Bay and turned north.  If we reached Marinette without a radio “hit” from the ELT, our plan was to head south and search along the shore.

We had a crew of three.  Ron*, in the right seat, was our observer, listening to the radio for hits and talking to air traffic control in Green Bay.  Dave* was our “Guy in Back” looking out the window for any sign of a downed aircraft.

Then there was me, the pilot, a man with three jobs: fly the airplane, fly the airplane and fly the airplane.

All of us who serve in the Civil Air Patrol are volunteers, and that includes both air crews and ground personnel.  The CAP is the civilian auxiliary of the Air Force, formed in 1941 to aid in national defense.  During World War II, the CAP sunk two enemy submarines in territorial waters and saved hundreds of crash victims.

These days, our duties are mainly safety patrols and essential search and rescue missions. Some 60,000 CAP volunteers serve nationwide. In Wisconsin, 1,100 members serve through 35 units.  Our airplanes are Cessnas, based in cities including Superior Appleton, Green Bay, La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee and Superior.

I became a private pilot about 10 years ago as a hobby, but joined CAP to pursue my favorite hobby while helping people. I’m sure other CAP members fee the same.

We routinely fly over Door County’s shorelines on busy holiday weekends, keeping an eye out for vacationers who might be in distress. We do this at altitudes from 1,000 feet to 3,000 feet.

Door County has about 300 miles of coastline. You might find it interesting that only three counties in the continental United State have more.  Now factor in nearly 2 million annual visitors to the county, and it’s easy to see why our patrols are important.  Routine patrol flights sometimes do turn into rescues.

On one such flight, we located an overturned sailboat with people in the water.  We radioed ground personnel, and then circled the capsized craft to guide rescuers to the aid of those overboard.

Fog is a Challenge

Because we fly over Green Bay and Lake Michigan, weather can be a greater challenge for us than for our colleagues who cover land. The weather here changes very quickly. Fog can roll in fast, and if the pilot isn’t rated to land with instruments, he has to head inland to find a landing spot with better visibility.

Rough weather, in fact, ended our flight on the night we were searching near Marinette. We had just made the turn and were headed south when Dave spotted lightning in the northwest.

Ron made a quick check with Green Bay’s weather service, and we were warned that a thunderstorm was indeed headed our way.  I decided to get us on the ground before that wind came up.  We made it back safely and were rolling the Cessna into the hangar as the storm struck.

By morning, there were no more ELT signals, which is usually a good sign.  Often, these distress calls can be a case of a pilot or boat captain accidentally switching on his transmitter.  That doesn’t make for a dramatic tale of search and rescue, but it’s the happiest way for these stories to end.

So, next time you’re in Door County catching some sun on the beach or some fish from a boat, that may be us winging overhead helping to assure your safety.  Have fun and keep enjoying Wisconsin!

*Major Ron Marto, safety officer, Door County Senior Squadron

*Major Dave Fish, character development instructor, Door County Senior Squadron

Documentary by Major Pierce Sherrill, Door County Senior Squadron, Civil Air Patrol

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