Civilian Pilots Provide Target Practice

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

As his watch ticks toward midnight, Paul Gardella checks the oil on the small Cessna 182 parked on a cold, dark airstrip in Fairfax County. He knows what he soon could be facing: Coast Guard helicopters chasing him. F-16s intercepting him. Ground-to-air missiles tracking his every turn.

That's because Gardella -- a software engineer and former military officer -- is taking on a new role.

Enemy of the U.S. government.

"In the Navy, I was on the other side. I was on the side of the ones that were shooting," he muses.

Gardella, 50, is among a group of pilots who pose as nighttime intruders, penetrating restricted airspace over Washington in drills that take place every few weeks. While area residents slumber, the volunteers allow the U.S. military to practice intercepting them -- or worse.

The pilots are with the Civil Air Patrol, a national organization with a proud history of service. During World War II, its daredevil pilots chased German U-boats along the U.S. coast. In the ensuing decades, volunteers ran bomb-shelter exercises and helped the Air Force search for crashed planes.

Now, with the country facing terrorist threats, the Civil Air Patrol is returning to its homeland-defense roots.

"I understand there has to be practice," said Gardella, a laid-back father of three from Burke. If bad guys are what Uncle Sam needs, he declared, "I'm happy to help out."

In the low-slung flight operations center at Fort Belvoir, Gardella and three other pilots met on a recent wintry night to prepare for their mission. Clad in olive flight suits with Civil Air Patrol patches, they sat on couches in a wood-paneled room, studying maps and listening to a flight briefing from Gene Hartman, 72, a patrol member from Springfield.

It was Gardella's first homeland security exercise, but his companions were veteran invaders.

Air Force Col. Keith Zuegel, 47, won a Silver Star for bombing an Iraqi-held air base in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. After being promoted to a desk job, he joined the Civil Air Patrol to fly in his spare time. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he was asked to take part in military exercises again -- this time, over Washington.

As the target.

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