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September 08, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Angels of mercy Angels of mercy (September 08, 2004)

Civil Air Patrol keeps 'em flying over Palo Alto

by Jocelyn Dong

When Capt. Steven Philipson and Lt. Richard Palm flew to Portland a few years back, the headwinds were stronger than expected -- 15 knots.

They had crammed into the back of their Cessna 182 seven boxes of blood belonging to the American Red Cross. On any other night, the radio would have been crackling with air-traffic communications, but on this evening both the radio and the sky were eerily vacant.

It was Sept. 12, 2001.

Palm and Philipson were still in shock at the news of the terrorist attacks the day before. But as members of the Civil Air Patrol Squadron 10, based at the Palo Alto Airport, they had volunteered to run an emergency mission while commercial flights were grounded.

When the call to duty came in the early afternoon, they embarked on what they describe as the most emotional flight of their lives.

"I'm not a flag waver," said Philipson, a product of the Vietnam era who sports impenetrable sunglasses, "but wearing the uniform, I felt the power of the American flag (patch) on my arm like it was hot."

The more soft-spoken Palm echoed the sentiments of millions who volunteered during the aftermath, saying simply: "It felt good to be able to contribute any way I could."

Their blood-transport mission went without a hitch, adding another chapter into the annals of the Civil Air Patrol.

"We saved a bunch of lives that night," Philipson said.

Amid the hundreds of small aircraft parked at the Palo Alto Airport, the Civil Air Patrol occupies a humble blue portable, set a stone's throw from the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course along East Embarcadero Road.

The building is the hub for the 70 civilian volunteers of the patrol, which is an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. From there, they launch their sorties -- search and rescue, homeland-security missions, counter-drug operations, disaster relief and cadet training.

The Palo Alto chapter itself has been in operation for about 50 years. Interest in the squadron has picked up in the past few years, said Major Alice Mansell.

"Since 9-11, people want to help out, they want to do something," Mansell said.

Nationwide, the patrol conducts about 95 percent of the inland search-and-rescue missions, launching when a satellite picks up an emergency locator transmitter, presumably from a missing aircraft or boat.

The Palo Alto squadron is called up about once a month for search and rescue. Most, fortunately, end up being false alarms caused by malfunctioning equipment, said Philipson. But at least they've been investigated.

Civil Air Patrol officers are an interesting breed: part Lewis and Clark, part Bill Gates, part military bureaucrat. They're nerdy about their planes and equipment the way experts tend to be, but ask them about the missions they've flown and their eyes gleam.

There have been some hot-dog pilots in the ranks, said Philipson, a 17-year patrol veteran, but mostly they've been weeded out. The squadron, he said, needs people with level heads; lives depend on it.

Each search-and-rescue mission requires a three-person team, including a pilot, an observer and a scanner. Aviators who are show-offs quickly get a bad reputation, said Philipson.

On a recent Tuesday, Palm piloted the jewel of the Palo Alto Civil Air Patrol fleet, a recently refurbished Cessna 182, into tranquil skies above the Peninsula on a practice search-and-rescue mission.

After speeding down the runway, the Cessna took flight, passing the golf course flecked with Canada geese, rising above IKEA and over the red-and-white marshes, their fingers of water curling like Chinese dragons against a crystallized-salt backdrop.

Palm headed for grid 320 B, a rectangle of the Santa Cruz mountains 7.1 nautical miles wide. There, using a GPS system to help navigate, he explained the search-and-rescue procedure.

First, the team marks off the corners of the grid by identifying landmarks. Then they begin the search, dropping to 1,000 feet and slowing to 90 knots. They take one of two approaches, either tracing parallel lines about a mile apart for flat terrain or following the contours of the mountain.

Thoughts going through the mind of the pilot, said Palm, include how to stay out of trouble, efficiently search the grid and make the crew comfortable. Searches can take 2.5 to 3 hours.

While the pilot is flying the craft, the observer acts like a guide, telling the aviator where to go. The scanner, meanwhile, is tasked with searching the ground for evidence of the downed plane. If the area is thickly wooded, the aircraft itself may not be visible, so the scanner looks for other telltale signs: trees sliced through or discolored from burning.

Philipson called the work "completely engrossing." Pilots need to be thinking one step ahead, scouting for emergency landings and controlling the plane's every move. In some areas, like the Sierras, steep terrain and nasty winds can make search-and-rescue extremely dangerous.

"You don't have the opportunity to make mistakes," Philipson said.

After demonstrating the search technique, Palm cruised back to the airport, where Mansell has turned on a practice emergency locator transmitter. The plane radio picked up the signal, which sounded like a cross between a police siren and car alarm. Transmitters can be detected as far as 50 miles away, Palm said.

The Civil Air Patrol's radio equipment play an important a role in the organization's work, said Mansell. As a hybrid civilian and military agency, the patrol is one of the few groups able to communicate with many agencies -- from the sheriff to the firefighters, which all use different technologies and frequencies.

Occasionally, the Civil Air Patrol is called on to help two agencies communicate, circling in the air and relaying messages "like a telephone operator," Mansell said.

These days, the flying assignments Philipson and Palm receive don't carry the emotional weight of the Sept. 12 mission. But they want people to know of the value the Civil Air Patrol brings to the Palo Alto Airport.

"There's some important public service work going on here. It's not just about rich people having their fun," Philipson said. Senior staff writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at

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