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Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It: Explore CAP's Flight Safety Culture

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the September/October 2018 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.


Paul Cianciolo
FAA Safety Briefing

What would you do if you heard something like this over the radio: “November 778 Charlie Papa, this is U.S. Coast Guard helicopter off your left wing. You have entered flight restricted airspace and need to exit immediately! If you hear this transmission, rock your wings.” Yikes! Now, suppose you are the one flying Cessna N778CP.

If this does happen to you, don’t panic — fly the aircraft first; then communicate. (Download our in-flight intercept procedures at 1.usa.gov/1EJ3n4i if you need a refresher on what to do.)

To a Civil Air Patrol aircrew, the instructions you just heard are actually part of the typical chatter from a training mission assigned by the Air Force. Flying as “tracks of interest” allows military and law enforcement pilots to practice safe intercepts of general aviation (GA) aircraft. As an Auxiliary Airman myself, I can attest to the unique experiences that flying with CAP provides. Nothing beats the view flying low and slow over the nation’s capital in the middle of the night while watching for the flashes of red and green lights of D.C.’s visual warning system or an incoming fighter jet or helicopter preparing to intercept us.

Flying as a volunteer with CAP is not for everyone, but it is one twist in our kaleidoscope community that can give pilots a new experience to improve skills and become a better pilot. Before we dive into CAP’s flight safety culture, let’s take a brief look at what makes the organization tick.


CAP was established in 1941 to mobilize the nation’s civilian aviation resources for national defense service. The wartime efforts recently earned the 200,000 World War II members of CAP the Congressional Gold Medal, which is the country’s highest expression of appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.

After the war, CAP became a federally chartered nonprofit with a new mission. As outlined from Title 36, United States Code (36 USC), chapter 403, the current purposes of the corporation are:

  • To encourage citizens to support aviation and be an example through volunteerism;
  • To provide aviation training to its members;
  • To promote the development of civil aviation in local communities;
  • To rally its volunteers to respond to local and national emergencies; and
  • To assist the Air Force with its non-combat programs and missions.

CAP is also the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, which is detailed in 10 USC chapter 909. As Total Force partners with the Air Force, CAP members are considered Airmen serving alongside their regular, reserve, guard, and civilian Air Force counterparts when performing assigned missions.

There are plenty of opportunities for pilots to use their skills for the greater good. The majority of CAP’s 560 single-engine airplane fleet are Cessna 172s and 182s. More than 250 of those are equipped with technically advanced glass cockpits, which enhance aircrew efficiency and safety. For those who prefer to fly without an engine, CAP also operates 47 gliders and two hot air balloons used mainly for orientation flights and training.

During 2017, CAP pilots provided 30,589 orientation rides to introduce CAP cadets, as well as Air Force Junior ROTC and ROTC cadets, to flight. Instructor pilots also flew another 5,264 hours in powered aircraft, often at CAP national flight academies held across the country, teaching the organization’s cadets how to fly. Glider instructors flew another 3,160 sorties in 2017 teaching cadets how to soar.

Aerial photography is one of CAP’s core missions, with most of its aircraft equipped with digital cameras capable of storing the geographic coordinates of the images. Last year, CAP was involved in 789 search and rescue missions, saved 110 lives and flew 100,352 hours conducting search and rescue, disaster relief, air defense, counterdrug and numerous other critical missions for our country. To put a value on the selfless service of CAP members last year — $177 million economic impact in volunteer services nationwide.

Here is an example of one small piece of CAP’s work — conducting “shadow escort” flights for the Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing in central New York. As part of the Air Force’s Reaper training program for pilots and sensor operators, CAP aircrews accompany the MQ-9 Reapers to and from military restricted airspace for training exercises to comply with the FAA’s see and avoid rule. This support, which started in 2016, has helped save taxpayers more than $1 million and has increased MQ-9 training by 25 percent.

CAP’s safety record — at a low average of two accidents per 100,000 flight hours — is well below the national average for GA accidents . Keeping the world’s largest fleet of single-engine piston aircraft ready to respond requires a deliberately shaped safety culture. One of the key components of this is the required process of risk management that involves the pilot and a designated flight release officer (FRO).

“Before a flight, the pilot must complete an operational risk management (ORM) worksheet and have a telephone conversation with an FRO that covers the risk level — low, moderate, or high — from the ORM worksheet numerical score,” explains Heather Metzler, a volunteer CAP pilot and FAA Safety Team Program Manager at the Little Rock Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). “The FRO then tracks the flight. And when the flight is complete, the pilot contacts the FRO to report safely landing at the destination.”

The ORM worksheet is a flight risk assessment tool (FRAT), which is a safety enhancement topic of interest outlined by the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC). CAP’s worksheet assigns points based on risks in five areas:

The ORM worksheet is a flight risk assessment tool (FRAT), which is a safety enhancement topic of interest outlined by the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC). CAP’s worksheet assigns points based on risks in five areas:

  • Human — experience, training, currency, health, and crew rest.
  • Machine — maintenance, performance, and radio communications.
  • Mission — operations tempo and search complexity.
  • Environment — weather, terrain, VFR/IFR, and airfield familiarity.
  • Additional Factors — forced landing simulations or engine cuts during checkride, overwater distance, and overwater temperature.

“The ORM worksheet allows for a repeatable and comprehensive review of hazards and risks prior to each flight,” notes Jeffrey Smith, a volunteer CAP pilot and part of the FAA’s Flight Standards Service Compliance Philosophy Focus Team.

You may think that this is a lot of paperwork, but it is a process designed to let you truly assess your risk, take whatever steps are necessary to either fly, correct the unsafe conditions within your control, or cancel the flight. It is just part of the CAP culture.

“It actually feels weird to me now when I fly personally outside of CAP and I don’t have all of these processes,” Metzler illuminates. “I now use my own process when I fly separate from CAP for local flights not ideal for a VFR or IFR flight plan. I am thankful to CAP to have such a great system that I can adapt for my personal flying.”

“I also appreciate the focus on operational risk management and risk management training,” said Lou Volchansky, a volunteer CAP instructor pilot and the FAA’s Systems and Equipment Standards Branch manager. “All members, not just aircrew, are given opportunities to develop proficiency in applying the ORM process so that risk management becomes a part of your decision-making process, whether deliberate, time-critical, or strategic.”

There is always room for improvement. With a new organizational emphasis on professionalism in the pursuit of excellence, improving pilot skills and talents is a core expectation of CAP. CAP Chief of Safety George Vogt explains, “Safety is an outcome, and our emphasis is in giving our pilots an organization and structure, along with the risk management tools and training they need to ensure that they are as safe as possible. We aren’t looking at who is to blame when something goes wrong, but rather we want to take a team approach to see how we can improve.”

CAP is now taking a proactive approach to risk management by identifying risks and addressing them before they result in mishaps or trends through the creation of a new ground-up safety program based on the FAA’s Safety Management System (SMS). Go to bit.ly/faa-sms to learn more about the SMS.

“CAP is not required to have an SMS in the same way the FAA requires certificated air carriers or facilities to have an approved SMS,” Vogt explains. “However, we are adopting it as an industry standard approach to safety and will be adapting it to all of our missions and programs.”

The four SMS pillars of CAP’s new program, which are planned for implementation at the end of this year, are similar to the four FAA components. The pillars of CAP’s SMS are:

  • Roles and Responsibilities
  • Safety Risk Management
  • Safety Assurance
  • Safety Promotion and Recognition

“We are placing great emphasis on risk management,” notes Vogt. “We have even added risk management skills as a part of the character element of our cadet program to ensure our youngest members have a strong foundation in risk management skills to carry forward in their lives.”

Not only is CAP working to improve its own flight safety culture, but the organization is now seeking to share that expertise as a proud partner of the GAJSC. CAP has a seat on the GAJSC’s Safety Analysis Team working with important and highly influential organizations in the GA community.

“CAP can benefit immeasurably from our interaction with these organizations, learning more about their proven methods for scrutinizing mishaps to glean common factors and how to put initiatives in place to address those factors,” said Vogt. “And those are the very methods we are instituting in CAP. My ultimate goal is for CAP to be considered — along with the other esteemed members of the GAJSC — as one of the recognized national leaders in general aviation safety.”

CAP brings with it the experience of one of the largest fleets of GA aircraft in the world and extensive experience in part 91 operations in GA aircraft, which is why they are working with the FAA to be a participant in the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) program. This gives the ASIAS team another important source of GA flight data. It also provides CAP an opportunity to see how its flight data might compare to GA norms and how and where to focus on areas for improvement.

“This effort is the ultimate in proactive, data-driven risk identification, and we’re looking forward to being a part of it,” he expounds.

Volunteering with Civil Air Patrol is an opportunity for pilots to be a part of the Air Force team and fly for the greater good. It will hone flying skills and provide pilots with the opportunity for proficiency training, mission training, technical expertise, and peer support.

“I love flying with the CAP because it allows me to support my community in many ways, but it also makes me a safer pilot!” said Smith. “I am able to fly with other pilots that I can learn from, which increases my knowledge and improves my skills.”

If you want to create a new and unique pattern for your flight experiences, then visit GoCivilAirPatrol.com to learn more about the CAP community.

Paul Cianciolo is an associate editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and a rated aircrew member with Civil Air Patrol. He holds the CAP rank of lieutenant colonel, serves as the Natilonal Capital Wing's vice commander and public affairs officer, and is a member of the National Public Affairs Team as National Marketing/Social Media Manager.