The squadron colors had just been passed, command of the Civil Air Patrol Leesburg Composite Squadron 117 had changed hands and incoming commander Maj. David Thornton was making his way to the podium for his acceptance speech.
True to his by-the-book attitude honed by 27 years in the U.S. Army, outgoing commander Maj. Todd Parsons interrupted his walk.
“I have to go off-script for a second here,” Parsons said.
Then, he silently removed a small, shiny pin from his uniform and stood face-to-face with Thornton.
“I can’t have my commander out of uniform,” he said, pinning the commander’s insignia on Thornton’s chest.
While that pin probably weighs less than an ounce, it carries with it the responsibility of maintaining the squadron’s strong record of achievement established under Parsons.
“This squadron is one of the 10 largest among the 1,600 squadrons in the United States,” said Col Dean Gould, wing commander for the state of Virginia. “It is a nationally prominent squadron.
“Of all the squadrons that have cadet programs, and not all of them do, this squadron not only maintained the quality squadron rating during his entire tenure, they actually scored a perfect score for two consecutive years.”
Thornton said he understands that he is stepping into a large pair of Army boots.
“Over the last couple years we have been recognized as Squadron of the Year and Squadron of Distinction,” Thornton said. “We have a very strong cadet program with 140 cadets. That is one of the key reasons why we are as far as being recognized. My goals are to continue the direction that Major Parsons took us in terms of raising our professionalism.”
Civil Air Patrol, as its name indicates, is a group of volunteers committed to fulfilling its three-pronged mission.
Not just a service club or loose collection of aviation hobbyists, CAP is an auxiliary with 58,000 volunteers that falls in the chain of command of the United States Air Force.
“It’s part of the total force of the U.S. Air Force and we have three congressionally mandated missions,” Parsons said. “We are a composite squadron, which means we have emergency services, aerospace education and the cadet programs. That’s where we really come together to serve our community.”
Gould said Thornton has been a key part of the squadron’s success and he is confident that high level will continue as Thornton assumes command.
“I know I am turning things over to good hands,” he said. “It’s going to be a seamless transition.”
MISSION NO. 1: SEARCH AND RESCUE
Civil Air Patrol executes 90 percent of inland search and rescue operations within in the United States.
“Our primary function is search and rescue, but we assist the Air Force in whatever capacity they require,” Thornton said. “If you look at 9/11, CAP aircraft were the first aircraft allowed back in the air. We helped with damage assessment over New York and the Pentagon.”
Just as CAP includes a mixture of volunteers with or and without a military background, its members are trained in various aspects of search and rescue.
“Everyone is not a pilot,” Thornton said. “To support the pilots, we need crew people in the plane and we need a ground crew. When they see something from the air, it is usually the ground crew that gets there first.”
Thornton said numbers are important to being in a constant state of readiness.
“We are all volunteers, so we all have regular jobs and everyone it not always available,” he said.
All aircraft are equipped with a beacon that identifies it and which can be triggered in the case of an emergency. That information is routed to the Air Force, which will notify and mobilize a search by the nearest CAP squadron.
“It may or not be an emergency – sometimes the beacons get tripped inadvertently – but our default is to respond as if it is an emergency,” Gould said “We have had planes up in the air in as little as one hour,” Gould said. “Our promise is two hours, but we very often beat that.”
MISSION NO. 2: YOUTH DEVELOPMENT AND LEADERSHIP TRAINING
The Leesburg Composite Squadron has 150 cadets ranging in age from 12 to 18.
The learn basic military tenets through a curriculum that focuses on leadership, aerospace, fitness, and character. As cadets participate in these four elements, they advance through a series of achievements, earning honors and increased responsibilities along the way.
“We train these people to save lives,” Gould said. “They have an actual operational mission and that is a really unique thing for someone at that age. These cadets get to train for and actually execute search and rescue mission. We had an instance where one of the ground teams during a balloon search was led by a cadet officer. She was, I think, 16 at the time. She had as members of her team a deputy sheriff, a dog team and a couple of other searchers but she was still in command of that team. She did such a good job that the sheriff’s department gave her a commendation.
CAP participation and achievement gives these youth a leg-up in applying to military institutions such as West Point and the Virginia Military Academy, as well as non-military colleges and universities.
Many of this nation’s astronauts, pilots, engineers and scientists first explored their careers through CAP cadet programs.
“The opportunities given to young person – at 12 years old and as they progress through the ranks they take on more and more (responsibility) for those around them,” Thornton said. “They’re trained how to become a great leader.”
MISSION NO. 3: AEROSPACE PROMOTION AND STEM EDUCATION
The CAP considers aviation and space travel under the single term, “aerospace.”
The Civil Air Patrol Aerospace/STEM Education Programs offers more than 40 free, fun and engaging products and programs to our members and to classrooms throughout the nation.
The program is for youth from preschool through 12th grade.
One interesting aspect is the CyberPatriot program, a national youth education program that culminates in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition. The competition puts teams of high school and middle school students in the role of newly hired IT professionals tasked with managing the network of a small company. Teams work with simulated operating systems and earn points by finding cybersecurity vulnerabilities and hardening the system while maintaining critical services in a six-hour period.
The Leesburg Composite Squadron participates in CyperPatriot under the guidance of Maj. Mark Cummings, a former F-15 pilot who saw action over Iraq in the Gulf War. He left the Air Force and worked in cyber security with Northrup Grumman before returning to the Air Force in that capacity. “The cadets through and look for anything that is not configured properly, any users that are not configured properly and possible viruses or malware and they harden the computer for defense and they get points every time they find something or correct some errors in the computer.”
Parsons said he is proud of his accomplishments with Leesburg Composite Squadron and he is moving on to a new position with the Virginia Wing of CAP.
“I had been in commander since Nov. 24, 2015,” Parsons said. “I have been a member of this squadron since 2011 and we have really moved along a lot. It is a robust squadron that today is at 198 people.”