The last time the Air Force's director of homeland security flew in a military-owned plane, it fired afterburners. Yesterday, he rode in an Air Force plane with no engine at all.
Brig. Gen. Dave Cleary hitched a ride in a glider flown by the Virginia Civil Air Patrol. One of the patrol's propeller-driven planes towed the glider down a county airport runway, lifted it to 3,000 feet and released the glider, allowing it to coast on eddies of air to a smooth and virtually silent runway landing minutes later.
"This is an entirely different end of the spectrum," Cleary said, laughing, after his flight.
The glider flies most every temperate weekend out of Winchester Regional Airport, an educational tool designed for teenage cadets with the Civil Air Patrol.
Part of Cleary's trip was social -- a chance to shake hands and talk shop with some of the 63,000 volunteers of the Civil Air Patrol. But he also was there for strategic reasons: to size up how he can best use the 61-year-old organization and the 550 small airplanes the Air Force buys for it.
Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft have pushed Americans to take personal responsibility for defending the homeland. They have urged neighbors to form watch groups and civilians to stockpile water and batteries in case of attack. Cleary said the patrol's volunteers also can answer the call by patrolling waterways and coastlines and taking aerial photographs of such vulnerable spots as nuclear power plants.
"This is a great way for citizens to do a small, but active, part of homeland defense," he said.
Founded just before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Civil Air Patrol has a storied World War II history. During the war, private air enthusiasts slapped the group's three-bladed propeller logo on their planes and took to the skies, searching U.S. coastlines for enemy submarines, part of a massive effort to mobilize ordinary citizens.
Since then, the patrol has focused on search-and-rescue missions. It helps out after natural disasters and educates residents about aviation, including its teenage cadets. Patrol pilots took photographs of Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and, most recently, helped look for bits of wreckage from the space shuttle Columbia.
Cleary said he envisions the group returning to the mission it undertook in World War II, when its motto was "eyes of the home skies." With all-volunteer flight crews, the price is right as well, he said.
"They are returning to their roots," he said.
The Air Force provides the single-engine Cessnas. Patrol members use military lingo and ranks and wear uniforms similar to those worn by Air Force pilots. But in real life, the weekend warriors of the Civil Air Patrol often have no military affiliation.
"I'm a first lieutenant in the Air Force Auxiliary when I'm here. But when I leave, I'm just me," joked Adam Sowder, 23. In everyday life, Sowder works as real estate agent. But on weekends and evenings, he pulls on his combat boots, dons his uniform and commands teenage cadets for the Winchester Squadron. "This is my way to serve my country," he said.
There are 40 Civil Air Patrol squadrons in Virginia, 24 in Maryland and a group in the District. Jim Kenkel, commander of the Culpeper Squadron, said units now are figuring out how they fit into homeland defense plans. His pilots, for instance, could patrol a local nuclear power plant whenever the nation's terrorism threat level rises to Code Orange.
"Our planes are low and slow, and we can do that kind of slow monitoring," said Kenkel, a retired judge and lawyer.
Not all the volunteers are pilots. Some work the radio or perform safety inspections on the ground. A significant number are teenage cadets who join a sort of military youth group, complete with summer camps, sports and of course, flying. Cadets can fly up to five times in a prop plane and five times in a glider before they turn 18.
Yesterday, cadet Airman Will Flathers, 17, of the Culpeper Squadron, got his first chance to soar. After climbing out of the glider, he trotted across the runway with a grin on his freckled face. "It was great -- the air was so smooth," he said. Flathers, who wants to join the military, said he hoped to help the patrol with its missions, working the radio or even just getting adults coffee.
"It's a way to serve," he said.