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Civil Air Patrol adds surveillance to duties

LAS VEGAS -- For six decades the Civil Air Patrol, the volunteer auxiliary arm of the US Air Force, has been flying search and rescue missions, hunting for lost hikers and downed aircraft. But since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the patrol has been flying security missions, and is using cutting-edge technology to improve its surveillance abilities with an aviation standby -- single engine Cessnas.

The US Department of Defense used Civil Air Patrol services to provide aerial security surveillance over venues at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and the patrol has also been routinely used to fly surveillance and security missions over the nation's harbors, reservoirs, nuclear power plants, military bases, gas pipelines, and other sensitive sites.

"We've been doing this type of reconnaissance, helping augment the active military for 60 years," said Colonel Richard Greenhut, Northeast region commander, who is responsible for New England airspace. "Now we are just doing a lot more flights."

About 900 members of the 64,000-member organization met here for their annual conference that ended Wednesday, and national security was at the top of the agenda.

Civil Air Patrol members are a mix of retired law enforcement and Air Force officers, as well as civilian aviation enthusiasts who enjoy combining their hobby with volunteer work. The patrol owns 550 single-engine Cessnas stationed across the country, and more than 4,000 of its members own private planes.

The patrol is also exploring new technology to aid in rescues and security operations. Colonel Drew Alexa, who heads its advanced technology division, said the patrol, which already had thermal imaging and night vision capabilities, recently added satellite digital imaging systems to some aircraft.

The system allows members to take digital photos while airborne and transmit them to e-mail addresses anywhere in the world within minutes, eliminating the need for each patrol mission to have a ground crew waiting with special equipment to receive the images.

Alexa, who lives in Colorado Springs, said the Civil Air Patrol is also hoping to test its first hyperspectral imaging system within the next three months. The technology, which Alexa calls "a better set of eyeballs," uses a sensor attached to the plane's belly that has the ability to detect objects on the ground pilots and rescuers cannot see with the naked eye.

It works by first putting specific physical properties or data of the search object into a computer. Alexa said that can be anything from a type of material to color of paint on the object that the flight crew is looking for. The imaging system will then find the object in the form of reflected light on the ground and map its location.

Alexa said the patrol's goal is to have at least one aircraft in each of the patrol's eight regions outfitted with the hyperspectral imaging by early 2004.

"We are getting technically sound and updating our equipment so we'll be ready to answer the call," Alexa said.

The Civil Air Patrol is currently one of several agencies participating in "Determined Promise," a bioterror exercise organized by the Department of Defense. The drill is testing the government's ability to react to a mock spread of plague on the Las Vegas Strip and quickly distribute a drug stockpile to the area.

As part of the exercise last week, pilots escorted a truck carrying the drugs from Logandale, Utah to Las Vegas.

"There are not enough military and government agencies to protect the nation so it's going to have to take everyone, citizens as well, to secure our borders," said Melanie LeMay, a patrol spokeswoman. "Our members are well trained, eager to help, and provide an inexpensive alternative for the government."

The civilian corps only flies assigned tasks at the request of military, state, or federal authorities. Those agencies contract with the patrol at $90 an hour for duties that would otherwise fall upon the military or federal law enforcement.

Members "can't go up and videotape or take pictures on their own," LeMay said, addressing privacy concerns. "They have to be assigned a specific task and keep a detailed log."

For an agency that was founded one week prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor amid concerns about defending the nation's coastlines, LeMay said the Civil Air Patrol has come full circle in terms of homeland defense.

"Then it was the Germans. Now it's terrorists," she said.

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