A Natural Leader
Phelka, Natl. Vice Commander: 'Cadet Programs Laid a Foundation for Me for a Future of Service'
Brig. Gen. Ed Phelka has experienced an inspiring journey during his Civil Air Patrol career. From being a cadet in the late 1980s, Phelka has advanced in the organization, shouldering greater and greater responsibility as commander of a wing and a region and now national vice commander.
The lessons he learned while a cadet have remained with him throughout his career, both in the private sector and public service, and he continues to give back to the organization and cadet program that helped shape him into the leader he is today.
Stood Out from His Peers
As CAP celebrates 75 years of its internationally renowned cadet program, Phelka looks back fondly at his humble beginnings as a Michigan Wing cadet.
“I first joined CAP when I was 14, in April 1987,” he said. “I had my sights set on the United States Air Force Academy, and I thought CAP would be a great place to get my start. It certainly helped! I received an appointment to USAFA in late 1990. Though the Air Force Academy was ultimately not for me, Civil Air Patrol certainly was.”
Phelka describes Col. William S. Charles II, the former commander of the Michigan Wing (1995-1999) and Great Lakes Region (1999-2003), as “a mentor and significant role model." Charles recalled, “I first met Ed in 1988 when he attended his first basic encampment and I was the encampment commander. I really took notice of Ed when I watched him progress as a cadet leader, becoming a Spaatz cadet. He had very well-developed and strong leadership qualities that made him stand out from his peers.”
As a cadet Phelka earned the Gen. Billy Mitchell Award in 1988 and went on to receive the Amelia Earhart Award in 1989 as well as the Gen. Carl A. Spaatz Award in 1993. That summer he participated in the International Air Cadet Exchange to Germany.
After he became a senior member, Phelka graduated from National Staff College and the Wing Commander Course and also served as a seminar adviser at the staff college as well as the National Cadet Officer School, both at CAP National Headquarters at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
“CAP’s Cadet Programs laid a foundation in me for a future of service,” Phelka said. “I have built upon the leadership principles and core values taught in the cadet program, and put them to use in the business world, as well as in Civil Air Patrol leadership.”
After Phelka graduated from the University of Michigan and embarked on a career in the airline industry, “I was also switching gears in my Civil Air Patrol service to a platform of giving back to the program that taught me so much,” he said. “Even while in ‘giveback mode,’ I was still learning a great deal through the unique opportunities that Civil Air Patrol provided for me.
"Looking back, I can say with certainty that the CAP cadet program laid the foundation for me to be successful in the aviation industry,” he said.
In 1995, Phelka got a job with Northwest Airlines and began working his way up to management, eventually serving as manager of the Hub Control Center for Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
Despite his busy schedule, then-Capt. Phelka found time to serve in CAP as a senior officer. In 1996, Charles appointed Phelka to command the Livonia Thunderbolt Cadet Squadron, one of the Michigan Wing’s top units."Also that year, I assigned him as an escort for cadets for legislative visits,” Charles said. “Michigan was the first wing to bring cadets to Legislative Day (in Washington, D.C.). I did this because of Ed’s vast knowledge of the cadet program and his leadership abilities.”
Phelka, who earned his private pilot’s certificate in 1998, later spent two years in command of the Southeast Michigan Group. “As a senior leader in CAP, it is my job to create opportunities for others to succeed, recalling that we are an organization made up of people, coming together to do important work,” Phelka said.
Just before Charles’ departure as Michigan Wing commander in 1999, he brought then-Maj. Phelka on as the wing’s director of cadet programs, a position he would also hold later on in Colorado.
Phelka joined Frontier Airlines in 2004, eventually becoming the airline’s senior manager for operations at Denver International Airport. In 2006 he successfully initiated and for two years directed a new CAP National Cadet Special Activity at Denver International, designed for cadets interested in exploring potential careers in the airline industry. He also earned the Gill Robb Wilson Award in 2007 upon completing Level V of the Senior Member Professional Development program.
Phelka went on to become Colorado Wing commander from 2007-2011. During his command cadet membership increased by 77 percent. Under his leadership, the wing flew over 10,000 hours and was responsible for 90 finds and 24 lives saved.
After stepping down from command of the Colorado Wing, the accomplished pilot returned to Michigan as a commercial pilot and flight instructor. He now lives in the Greater Detroit area.
“With my business experience, I have instructed several executives who are learning to fly. The commercial flying I am doing now is for small business owners and their families,” he said. “I also volunteer as a pilot for Wings of Mercy East Michigan, flying need-based missions transporting patients to medical appointments.”
And, of course, Phelka has continued his service to CAP. He replaced Charles as national controller in August 2011. As the principal adviser to the national commander and Senior Advisory Group on logistics and financial accountability, he acted as the chief asset manager of CAP’s $100 million in assets, such as aircraft and vehicles.
“In 2015 Ed became Great Lakes Region commander, a position I held 12 years prior,” Charles said.
This August newly selected CAP National Commander Maj. Gen. Mark Smith chose Phelka as his national vice commander, citing his commitment and devotion to the betterment of the organization over his 30 years of service. Both Smith and Phelka assumed their current positions during a change of command ceremony on Sept. 2 at CAP’s National Conference in San Antonio.
“All through his career I have done my best to mentor and advise him,” Charles said. “I saw the potential in Ed to be a critical leader in CAP back when he was a cadet. He has proven that faith 100 times over. He has a deep knowledge of all three of our mandated missions, and an understanding of how they all should fit and work together.”
Phelka’s current work helping to command the 58,000 volunteers of CAP involves long hours and a never-ending dedication to perpetual improvement of all cadets and senior members. Encampments, leadership schools and other leadership development training help ensure that today’s cadets will be tomorrow’s leaders in CAP and beyond.
“I truly believe that Brig. Gen. Phelka is one of CAP’s greatest leaders,” Charles said. “It is fitting that he be highlighted as part of the 75th anniversary of our great cadet program.”