After Drop in Enrollment, Lewis County Civil Air Patrol Squadron Leaders Discuss Program’s Benefits for Youths

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The United States Air Force song, beginning with “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder,” was written by a Chehalis High School graduate.

This is just one of the countless ties between the Air Force and Lewis County natives.

One way the community can create and foster those connections is through Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the auxiliary of the Air Force, which offers programs for motivated young people between the ages of 12 and 21. The three pillars of the program are emergency services training, aerospace education and cadet programs, which offer a membership-based community comparable to Scouts.

“It's certainly not a recruiting program,” said Dan Whalen, Lewis County Squadron commander. “I like to think of it as any employer that's looking to hire somebody. They got two potential candidates in front of them and somebody can say, ‘I was a team leader on this project. I fly aircraft’ … It just gives them an edge.”

In their aerospace education, cadets get the chance to fly a plane. Newcomers to the squadron (a local chapter) get five power flights in a Civil Air Patrol Cessna and five glider flights. Every month following, cadets receive an hour and a half of continued training on aircraft functions, pieces, airport operations and more.

“That would get them more knowledgeable about aviation. And right now, there's a big shortage of pilots in the country,” Whalen said.

His theory for the pilot shortage is that within the last decade, kids interested in aviation were told “drones and pilotless aircraft are going to be the wave of the future,” he said. “So I think a lot of younger people looked at that and went, ‘I'm going to change my career path.’”

In commercial piloting, there is mandatory retirement at age 60, so as the current generation of pilots quickly ages out, CAP program leaders are hoping to inspire some youth to fill the void.

Another reason the Lewis County leaders are hoping to get more youth involved, they said, is because of a dip in enrollment during the pandemic.

“Having been through almost two years now (of the pandemic), when we're talking about kids that are 12 years old, all of a sudden now they're 14,” Whalen said. “There's some lost opportunity because if a young person can join between 12 and 13, they can really get a lot more out of the program … Not that we want to change who they are or who they're going to become, but we can help them with their foundation.”

Whalen and other commanders who have seen their children go through CAP, said it offered kids confidence, character development and the chance to do community service. For some cadets, it even shaped their careers.

Former Toledo Airport Manager Larry Mason was an Air Force lieutenant colonel before working for United Airlines for 30 years and now spends time volunteering with CAP. His granddaughter, who was once a second lieutenant in CAP, went on to receive a bachelor of science in computer science with an emphasis in security and did an internship with NASA. After finishing her degree, she had the opportunity to work at Wallops Island, Virginia, where supplies are launched up to the International Space Station.

Her daughter, Mason’s great-granddaughter, is now following in those footsteps after also starting in CAP.

Asked if they would have been on their current paths without CAP, Mason said, “I don’t think they would have. They maybe just hadn't thought of it. They knew that I was a pilot. … But they sort of worked their way into it. I didn't push them any way at all.”

Among the programs offered to cadets are 10-day camps of power flight training that allow participants to rapidly go from no experience to flying solo.

The cost to send cadets to the camp is about $1,200. Typically, squadrons will sponsor a third of that, the national headquarters a third, and cadets are encouraged to fundraise for the final third.

The act of fundraising, Whalen said, can give them a sense of ownership in their experience and teach them to work with their community.

Cadets in the Lewis County Squadron can also receive marksman training at the Centralia Rifle Club. Offering cadets safety-oriented marksman training may solidify the responsibility involved in gun ownership, Whalen said, perhaps making guns a less divisive topic through education.

The monthly cost for cadets in CAP is $35. Occasionally, there are other costs for uniforms, equipment or field trips, but the squadron tries to manage costs and offer scholarships to make the program as affordable as possible.

“I just can't say enough about this organization,” said Gilbert White, deputy commander. “I think it's just terrific for young people.”

To get involved as a cadet or volunteer, visit www.lewiscountycap.org or head to @LCCS110 on Facebook.