CAP conducts search and rescue exercise

Civil Air Patrol (CAP) planes from across the region descended into the Walker Airport Saturday to take part in a SAREX - search and rescue exercise.

Walker Airport
The Walker Airport was the base of operations for the Civil Air Patrol exercise Saturday. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Civil Air Patrol (CAP) planes from across the region descended into the Walker Airport Saturday to take part in a SAREX - search and rescue exercise.

Lt. Col. Tom Weston, North Central Region vice commander, arrived from his home on Long Lake to welcome the CAP seniors and cadets arriving for the exercise.

Weston, retired Air Force who moved to Hubbard County a year ago, explained his role was administrative for the exercise. He was grounded, serving as mission radio operator, communicating with teams from across the state. "Getting to know the region staff," explained Weston, a Wadena Medical Center physician's assistant.

But the vice commander of the seven-state area -who's logged 23 years with the CAP - said he enjoys leaving the earth's surface. "I still want to get into the fun."

Walker served as the mission base for the operation, but planes were deployed from across the state, explained Capt. Robin Helgager, commander of the Northland Squadron, Bemidji Area CAP.


The exercise, she said, simulates an actual mission, such as photoreconnaissance after a natural disaster. The pilots in Cessna 172s and 182s may be asked to photograph bridges or roads to assess damage, for example.

The benefit of the aircraft is its ability to fly low and slowly, to better see what's on the ground, Helgager explained.

The photos are downloaded from the aircraft to computers, which can then be e-mailed to public agencies, such as law enforcement.

The CAP, the official civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, conducts 90 percent of search and rescue missions for the Air Force, she said.

CAP planes were the only non-military aircraft allowed in the air after the 9-11 attacks, Helgager said. The CAP took the initial aerial photos of the destruction.

Meanwhile, the ground team, comprised of seniors and cadets, was ready for 24-hour deployment - "out in the woods." Each wore packs holding a whistle, flag, tape, first aid equipment, a radio, rope, extra socks and other equipment.

"Their job is to keep their eyes on the ground," Helgager said.

A compass, not a GPS, is the navigational instrument of choice, Helager said.


GPS batteries can run down, she said, citing an incident three years ago when a dog trainer's instrument failed and a 14-year-old cadet, armed with a compass and map, determined the location.

Cadets Rebekah, 15, and Kristin, 17, Schrader of Lake George arrived for the exercise, both members of the ground crew for over a year.

Rebekah Schrader explained line search protocol, eyes to the ground, walking side by side, searching for foreign objects. When an item is found, an echo yell of discovery is sent down the line, the leader arriving to investigate.

Several of the Bemidji CAP cadets participated in the Red Lake search for two missing children, Helgager said. CAP worked with Beltrami Emergency Services to shoot aerial photographs of recent flooding in the county.

A hard landing can set off a plane's emergency locating transmitter, which is coordinated via satellite. If the pilot is unaware, and the ELT is not deactivated, a signal is sent, alerting the CAP.

Many a "missing plane" has been found in the hangar, Helgager said. The Walker Airport is home to the Tri-

County (seniors only) CAP which is comprised of Cass, Hubbard and Beltrami county members.

The Park Rapids Airport composite (seniors and cadets) disbanded several years ago, former CAP pilot Dave Konshok said. "A lot of kids who went through the program received a good foundation."


"It's a phenomenal experience for cadets," Helgager said. Ages 12 to 21 are eligible for the program, teaching discipline, chain of command and respect.

"And they are trained to fly and fly planes at no cost."

For more information on the program, contact Helgager at 218-224-3556.

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