To cast off the shackles of gravity and soar like a bird: Modern flight can make the ancient dream a reality, but where does a young Alaskan start?
For Amanda Young and others like her, the Civil Air Patrol is the first step to making the dream come true. The Soldotna girl discovered the CAP's blue hangar near the Kenai Municipal Airport about four and a half years ago.
"I drove by one day and saw the building," she said. "I always wanted to fly, so I stopped by."
Now Young, 17, is the highest ranked cadet on the Kenai Peninsula and has set her career goals high in the sky.
Students take off
Every Monday evening, the cadets, ages 12 to 20, meet at the hangar.
Young counted 28 cadets and 87 adult members, called seniors, in the Kenai unit officially known as PCR-AK-011.
Cadets come from as far away as Homer to attend, because Kenai now has the only composite squadron on the peninsula. Other cadet groups meet in Juneau, Sitka, Fairbanks and the Anchorage area.
John Bittle, the deputy commander of cadets, reported that the Kenai squadron's youth program has grown and become more active in recent years. The military approach attracts some teens, the chance to try their wings attracts others.
"We've done tons of stuff," he said.
He has been involved with the group for almost five years. His son, Sean Bittle, who is now 18 and planning an aviation career, first got him involved, he said.
Last Monday, the cadets hiked near Exit Glacier to the Harding Ice field.
This Monday, they plan a competition, like a cross between Capture the Flag and war games, in which they dress in camouflage and sneak up on each other in the woods. The two teams are tied from the summer's past bouts, so excitement is high for this final match, he said.
The cadets do rocket launches, practice for color guard competitions, visit military bases, study aviation and explore the world of career opportunities before them. In March, they volunteered as actors for the "Northern Edge" military training exercise and hosted trainees in their hangar.
"It seems like every quarter we have something," John Bittle said.
In the fall they are planning winter camping and a 24-hour session at the Challenger Center of Alaska tailored to their group with advanced presentations on physical forces, rocketry, microgravity and robotics.
"And of course, they learn to fly," he said.
Young's face lights up when she talks about her time in the cockpit.
"They give orientation flights, which are
not exactly flight instruction," she explained.
Bittle elaborated that on the orientation flights the students learn about the controls and then take over as copilots alongside an instructor.
"By the end of the fifth orientation flight, the cadets are actually flying the plane," he said.
Young described the experience as exhilarating but tense.
"Last time it was a Cessna 172," she said. "It was fun, but the pilot had to keep telling me Cessnas make good gliders."
The CAP was founded in December 1941, by citizens concerned about the defense of America's coastline in the early days of World War II. One week later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
In 1946, President Harry Truman declared the CAP a "federally chartered benevolent corporation," and, in 1948, Congress passed a law making it the auxiliary of the new United States Air Force.
Now it is a nonprofit corporation with about 61,000 members in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
In Alaska, it has about 2,000 adult members and about 200 active cadets, according to the statewide Wing Headquarters at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
John Bittle noted that Alaska presents some unique opportunities for cadets, such as more frequent search and rescue projects.
"Other states have a lot more squadrons," he said, "but they don't have the aircraft available like we do."
The CAP has three major missions: aerospace education, emergency services and the cadet program.
The aerospace education program trains members and provides curriculum materials for all grades about aviation and space exploration, plus training for teachers. The emergency services aspect offers search and rescue missions and disaster relief assistance.
"The cadet program provides opportunities for the learning, maturing, accepting and nurturing of leadership to more than 26,000 young Americans from 12 to 20 years of age. With advice and assistance from CAP members at national, regional, state and local levels and the U.S. Air Force, cadets are exposed to a structured program of aerospace education, leadership, physical fitness and moral and ethical values," according to the organization's Web site.
The moral dimension is a big factor in the CAP.
The organization's official core values are "integrity, volunteer service, excellence and respect."
Lt. Col. Bobbie Tourville, writing about the values in a CAP newsletter, said, "These words effectively replace dozens of pages of directives, and simply articulate what's right and what's wrong, and form a tool by which conduct is measured. They are the embodiment of how CAP members are expected to treat each other and the people they come in contact with -- of man's expectations of fellow man."
John Bittle said the Kenai unit requires that cadets maintain exemplary personal conduct. Those who misbehave or let their school grades slip lose privileges of attending activities.
Chances to go far
For cadets who meet the CAP's standards, rewards can be great, John Bittle said.
For those interested in military service, the CAP opens doors. Cadets can earn the General Billy Mitchell Award, which increases students' chances of admission to military academies or qualifies them for a higher pay grade right after boot camp if they enter the armed services.
"It carries a lot of weight," he said.
And that is not all.
The CAP sponsors encampments that give motivated cadets opportunities for prestigious training and offers them increased access to programs such as the Search and Rescue Academy, NASA's Space Camp and others.
Young and Sean Bittle won a commendation for assisting during an air crash at an encampment in Oshkosh, Wisc., and the two of them are now authorized to participate in CAP ground searches. Sean Bittle got to attend a Delta Airlines pilot training course in Florida and is working toward his private pilot's license, his father said.
Kenai cadets have gone to color guard competitions in Nevada and earned Emergency Trauma Technician certification.
Moreover, the adults involved -- Sherri Hansen, Mike McBride, Marie Clausen and John and Doreen Bittle -- are giving the cadets a growing amount of responsibility for running their part of the squadron. Three -- Young, Sean Bittle and Rita Langevin from Homer -- are now cadet officers, and younger teens are moving up in the ranks. They are in charge of making the group work, including administrative functions.
"This is the first year the seniors are starting to back off and really let the kids run it, John Bittle said.
Young thrives on the challenge.
In April, she earned the Amelia Earhart Award, which comes after the Mitchell award, and with it received the rank of cadet captain. To advance, she had to be evaluated by a board and pass tests of physical and leadership skills plus an arduous 100-question examination testing aerospace topics, leadership theory and staff topics.
"Once you get up into the officer ranks there are also reports you have to do," she said. "I've been promoted since then to major."
This year she is a senior enrolled in the Interior Distance Education of Alaska cyber school. Being a home school student allows her flexibility to pursue CAP opportunities and offers funding for unconventional schooling, she said.
"It's going to pay for ground school at Kenai Peninsula College," she said.
Next summer Young hopes to attend cadet officer school in Alabama. After that, her tentative plans are to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage and enroll in ROTC. Ultimately, she would like to join the Air Force, she said.
"I always thought planes were fun, but last summer at the encampment they took us up in a Chinook (helicopter)," she said. "Hopefully I will be flying choppers for the next 20 years."
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