Searching for Service

When planes go down, Civil Air Patrol takes off

Posted: Sunday, October 22, 2006


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  Civil Air Patrol cadets talk over a campfire during a camp-out on Kalgin Island earlier this year. Photo courtesy Jan Bobek

The Civil AIr Patrol's Beaver comes in for a landing on Packer's Lake against a backdrop of Mount Spurr.

Photo courtesy Jan Bobek

People have been attracted to flying for many years.

The ability to defy gravity, to float on the wind and to soar into the heavens have been irresistible urges for countless men and women.

At times, unfortunately, gravity wins and erstwhile fliers find themselves making an unscheduled return to Mother Earth.

In Alaska, in particular, that return can place a pilot and his or her aircraft hundreds of miles from any road and any hope of being found.

Luckily there is a group of aviation fans that enjoys the camaraderie of the flying community nearly as much as the thrill of flight itself.

Known as the Civil Air Patrol, these men and women have, as one of their three missions, the responsibility of searching for downed planes or others reported lost in the vast expanses of the Last Frontier.


Mission pilot Dewayne Benton helps board a CAP cadet during a field trip earlier this year. Like other CAP members, Benton volunteers his time and abilities to keep the organization in the air.

Photo courtesy Jan Bobek

The other missions are the CAP cadet program and aerospace education, according to Major Henry Knackstedt, commander of the Kenai composite squadron.

He said the Kenai squadron has about 75 adult members and 30 cadets, who range in age from 12 to 18 years.

Based in a freshly painted blue hangar near the south end of the Kenai Municipal Airport runway, the all-volunteer squadron is organized under the Alaska Wing of the Civil Air Patrol.


Henry Knackstedt is the commander of the local Civil Air Patrol.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Other squadrons active on the Kenai Peninsula are based in Homer and in Seward.

Unlike other areas of the country, in Alaska, the state is responsible for finding people if they’re lost, Knackstedt said.

A Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, whose mission it is to go out and find missing military aircraft, gets to practice on lost or missing civilian aircraft.

“They say it’s a target-rich environment,” Knackstedt said.


Civil Air Patrol cadets talk over a campfire during a camp-out on Kalgin Island earlier this year.

Photo courtesy Jan Bobek

If a military Hercules airplane or helicopter flies in search of a downed aircraft, Knackstedt said the cost can be as much as $4,000 to $5,000.

“We go for $30 an hour plus fuel. It’s a heck of a deal,” he said.

Knackstedt recalls one search and rescue mission he flew one April after the rescue center picked up a signal from an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT).

“An ELT was going off near Whittier,” he said.


A Civil Air Patrol plane flies over Eric Cole during a CAP outing to Kalgin Island.

Photo courtesy Jan Bobek

“We took off in a (Cessna) 206 and up on a mountainside at about 2,000 feet, we found a fuselage with a fellow sitting up in it and a guy on the outside.

“They were on such a steep slope, we called the Rescue Center.

“We kept circling and tipped our wings so they knew we knew they were there,” Knackstedt said.

“The rescue center sent a helicopter and lowered the PJs,” he said, referring to parajumper responders who managed to rescue the two downed flyers.

“I remember seeing a helmet rolling all the way down that slope, it was so steep,” he said.


Jenna French looks out a rain-covered window before taking off for a CAP camp-out.

Photo courtesy Jan Bobek

“They got them off that mountain just in time,” said Knackstedt, recalling that the visibility ceiling was coming down rapidly as the ground fog was coming up.

Soon the entire mountainside would be shrouded in white.

Knackstedt learned later that the wrecked plane’s floats had clipped the mountain, tearing the floats off the plane. That likely allowed the two to survive the crash.

“When something like the floats hit first, it takes a lot of energy away from the impact (of the rest of the plane),” he said.

He also found out that the man sitting inside the plane had suffered a broken back on impact.

“The pilot actually called me from his hospital bed and thanked me,” Knackstedt said. “That made me feel pretty good.”

It’s a feeling he gets whenever he finds something or someone he’s sent to look for.

A search mission this past summer left Knackstedt’s emotions on the opposite end of the spectrum.

“We were looking for the lost Aerocommander from Washington,” he said, referring to a Northwest Air Commander aircraft on a training flight between Anchorage and Kenai.

The plane with three pilots aboard was last reported on radar July 28 over Cook Inlet off Point Possession.

“We flew probably 40 hours and never found anything, not even a scrap,” Knackstedt said.

“It’s disappointing.

“No matter what the outcome, you want to find something for the family,” he said.

Although many people think of civilian pilots when they hear the words Civil Air Patrol, actually only 20 percent of the Kenai CAP membership are licensed pilots.

Many of the members are spotters who ride in the planes when the CAP is searching for someone, or when something such as a hard landing or a strong bump activates an ELT on the ground or in a boat on the water.

“We have communications volunteers, electricians, mechanics, millwrights, retired DC-10 and 747 pilots and active commercial pilots who fly Beavers and Otters,” said Knackstedt in describing the Kenai squadron.

Knackstedt, who is a licensed pilot and joined CAP out of high school, left for a while, then rejoined in 1991. He missed the camaraderie and safety training the organization offered, he said.

Another member of the Kenai squadron who joined, left and rejoined is Kim Wannamaker, the Kenai Police Department lieutenant, who doubles now as the CAP public information officer.

Wannamaker first became a member of CAP in the mid-1990s, shortly after receiving his pilot’s license. He was a member for a little over a year, but stopped attending the squadron's weekly meetings.

In August 2005, Wannamaker and his son, Dylan, now 14, flew up to the Kenai Mountains to do some blueberry picking around some of the alpine lakes.

“We just planned to go up for a few hours after work,” Wannamaker said.

When they got up there, flying through some clouds, the weather closed in behind them, and instead of just passing through, it deteriorated, bringing the ceiling down to a couple hundred feet above ground.

“I decided we should just stay and wait out the weather,” Wannamaker said.

The temperatures in mid-August were not particularly cold even in the mountains, and there was no fear of exposure problems.

“We were OK,” he said.

Wannamaker carries emergency sleeping gear in his Piper PA-11 airplane, and while hiking around a lake, the father and son came upon an empty tent some hunter had apparently set up to discourage other hunters from landing in the area.

“When I told Dylan we were staying, he said, ‘Dad, this rocks,’” Wannamaker said.

The two were up early the next morning, perhaps 4 or 5 a.m., and set off hiking around the lake to get a better look down into the valley to see if the weather was lifting.

In the meantime, as the morning ticked on, Wannamaker’s coworkers began to wonder why he had not shown up for work, and people at Dylan’s school noted he wasn’t there for a leadership activity he had planned to attend.

“When we neared the edge of the lake where we could get a better view of the valley, we heard a plane.

“I told Dylan we were going to see a white plane with orange wings come over the ridge,” said Wannamaker.

Sure enough, it was Dick Woodin, a retired DC-10 pilot considered to be a mentor to fellow members of the squadron.

“Dylan asked how I knew, and I said, ‘Because they’re looking for us,’” said Wannamaker.

The CAP Beaver circled around Wannamaker and his son, landed on the lake and checked to make sure they were all right, and the two aircraft headed back to Kenai.

“The next month, I went back (to the CAP),” Wannamaker said. “It gave me a revived appreciation for Civil Air Patrol.”

n Cadet program

Imagine being 15 years old and soaring through the clouds with only the sound of the wind passing by the cockpit of the glider plane you’re piloting.

That’s a large part of the draw for Staff Sgt. Tyler Bethune and Senior Airman Patrick Petrey to the cadet program of Kenai’s Civil Air Patrol Composite Squadron.

Bethune, who serves as the cadet squadron first sergeant, said he became a member after the very first CAP meeting he attended two years ago.

Since then, he has logged 40 glider flights, for a total of between five and six hours, he said.

He also has been on flights in the CAP Cessna 172 with him at the controls.

“I think gliding is more fun ‘cause it takes more skill,” Bethune said.

Besides flying, he said cadets attend weekly meetings, perform flag presentations at community ceremonies, attend physical training and work on marching and maneuvering drills, attend moral leadership classes and participate in aerospace programs that include making model rockets.

Cadets also have a ground search team that assists senior CAP members while they are searching from the air when practicable.

“We’ve gone out on ELT transmitters,” he said, being dispatched when a transmitter was reported going off, and its location was not immediately known.

“On three different occasions, we located the ELTs,” he said. “It feels pretty good.”

“We use all the equipment — direction finding transmitters and receivers — and you know, if someone did go down, you could find them,” he said.

Petrey, who has been a member for one year and three months, said he enjoys the military bearing of the cadet program.

“It’s really got me interested in the Air Force,” Petrey said.

Although he is just beginning to take pilot lessons in a single engine airplane, he said, “It’s an experience like none other.”

About a future in the Air Force, Petrey said he would love to be a fighter pilot, but because he wears glasses and fighter pilots need perfect vision, he would probably opt for pararescue work.

During an orientation flight he was on after just joining the CAP, Petrey said he tuned in the radio and heard an ELT going off.

“We found it at the Soldotna Airport,” he said.

“It was pretty cool. I was only a member five months. It was quite a rush.

“It was good no one was hurt ... just an ELT going off,” he said.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at

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