North Country
5:08 pm
Wed June 19, 2013

Civil Air Patrol: Wings Over New Hampshire

Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR
Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR

With hurricane season ramping up and fire danger decreasing, New Hampshire’s Civil Air Patrol is beginning to switch roles.

NHPR’s Chris Jensen reports.

On a morning early in May Civil Air Patrol 2875 is about to leave the runway at Mount Washington Regional Airport in Whitefield.

Sound of pilots going through a checklist.

“Electrical equipment is off. Avionics switch one and two, off…”

The Civil Air Patrol is a non-profit corporation created by Congress that also serves as an auxiliary to the Air Force.

The New Hampshire wing has five aircraft, 25 pilots and 35 other air crew members, all volunteers.

Its basic local funding – provided by the Department of Defense – is about $30,000 a year.

Chris Jensen for NHPR
Chris Jensen for NHPR

The air force or FEMA sometimes cover expenses for specific missions.

“Clear propeller…” and then sound engine starting…”

With the spring forests of the North Country still tinder dry pilots Donald Davidson Jr. and Scott Davis are on the lookout for forest fires.

The traditional method for spotting fires has been a person perched in a fire tower.

 “Prospect Tower go ahead. Yeah, be advised we can see that column of smoke in the Littleton area from here.”

But flying over the North Country – usually 1,000 to 2,000 feet above ground level – provides the aerial advantage.

Begin drone of aircraft and fade….

Looking down from the single-propeller, four-seater Cessna 182 we can see into the folds and wrinkles of the mountains.

The hidden places.

It is a splendid, horizon-to-horizon view.

We’re a flying boxy patrol pattern over the North Country, sometimes peeking over into Canada and Vermont.

Sound of plane and then voice on radio:

Chris Jensen for NHPR
Chris Jensen for NHPR

  “There’s Lake Memphremagog right there. There’s the border.”

Civil Air Patrol members say they like the camaraderie and serving the community.

And there is the flying.

Don Davidson is 48 and a former Eastern airlines pilot.

“It is a combination of being able to contribute and getting to fly.”

Scott Davis, 66, is a retired Department of Transportation employee who learned to fly as a teen.

“It is a chance to have a purpose and have fun and spend the day doing something that very few other people get to do.”

Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR
Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR

Heading back south and approaching Whitefield there’s a column of smoke over in Vermont.

Davis calls it in. But fire crews are already fighting it.

As we move towards summer, the Air Patrol’s focus will be on getting ready for the hurricane season, says Bill Moran, who retired from the Air Force and is the commander of the New Hampshire wing.

The plan is to practice aerial photography.

After Superstorm Sandy New Hampshire and other civil air patrols flew for days over New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, providing FEMA with photos of the damage.

Combined the Civil Air Patrols took 150,000 aerial photos.

“It is a tedious process. You fly these legs at 90 knots with a photographer just snapping away, picture after picture after picture.”

It is great to have the help, says Nick Russo, who is a FEMA coordinating officer based in Portsmouth.

“When we can we do pre-landfall aerials so we can actually see an area where the storm is projected to land prior to the storm making landfall. What we can do after that is match that up with post landfall aerial reconnaissance and put those two together and then is no discrepancy. We know exactly what the damage is. There is no question.”

A web site called FEMA Check Your Home also allowed people who might not be able to reach home to see it from the air.

There’s another bonus, says FEMA’s Russo.

“They are tremendously affordable so it is a good deal for us and for our taxpayers who support us.”

But for the members of NH civil air patrol, flying and serving the community are the perfect combination.

“We’re about ten miles out. We’ll be landing in about five, seven minutes.”

We circle the air strip, bank and then tires touch pavement

Sound of tire chirp.....

For NHPR News this is Chris Jensen

Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR
Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR