By Published On: January 1, 2024Categories: Stories

Story By Hannah Goldfinger

Photos Contributed By CAP and Bob Parsons


Not 45 minutes from Auburn is the headquarters for the Civil Air Patrol — United States Air Force Auxillary.

The Civil Air Patrol is located on Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. But what is the Civil Air Patrol?

“[The] Civil Air Patrol is a nonprofit corporation that was chartered by Congress that also serves as the United States Air Force’s Auxiliary when doing missions for the Air Force,” said John Desmarais, chief operating officer for Civil Air Patrol. “So we’ve got basically a three-tiered mission. We have an emergency services program supporting a lot of mid-disaster relief and search and rescue work. We also have a youth program in our cadet program for cadets aged 12 through 20. And then we also have an airspace education program that reaches across the country as well. It’s both internal and external, supporting not only our cadets and our adult members, but also the classroom teachers and education programs across the country.” 

Cadet Program:

“[The Cadet Program] is set up to be very aviation-focused,” Desmarais said. “It’s, basically, a multi-tier program. And it’s achievement-based. So cadets take tests and participate in activities to promote in the program. They work through airman and the officer ranks over the course of potentially several years. But, it’s not just academic-based. So even though they’re taking academic tests in both leadership and aerospace to promote, they also do a lot of hands-on activities and participate in our operational missions as well. So cadets can take orientation flights and … we also have programs where they can actually learn how to fly.

“But, you know, it’s not necessarily just aviation-based. We have cadets that are able to participate in activities that tie to our missions in a variety of ways, or to the Air Force, potentially. So we have cadets for example, that would go to familiarization courses with Space Command. We have cadets that will end up going through our Cadet Officer School and they get leadership training.”

Desmarais was a cadet himself — he joined on Dec. 1, 1987.

There are 1,400 squadrons across the United States, Desmarais said, about 29,000 total cadets, and 408 cadets in Alabama alone.

“You know, it’s a pretty large program and … in day-to-day, our cadets, do a lot of neat things,” he said. “Cadets meet generally on a weekly basis for a few hours each week, where they have not only their academics but hands-on activities are kind of initiated there. But then there’s a lot of weekend activities and after a cadet joins, typically in their first year, they participate in what we call an encampment where they get the exposure to all sorts of aspects of military bases as well as careers, [and] a lot of career exploration opportunities.

“So typical encampment activities will take orientation flights and military aircraft. They may be able to, you know, take tours on the bases, everything from the base fire department to the  tower to the … security forces offices to actually seeing all of the aspects of supporting aviation, like maintenance and such. And then, beyond that, and once a cadet has attended encampment, they, actually get access to a lot of other activities across the country. We have spots for about 1,800 cadets to go to National Cadet special activities in the summer across the country where they can do things like go to flight academies where they learn how to fly.

“We have cyber programs where they get to work with people that network generally for Cyber Command or doing that as their career for the military, working Cyber defense, and training. We also have programs where they do job shadowing of a varied sort. So, we have cadets that will go to [a factory] for example, out in Kansas, where they’ll get to work with the folks on the line, actually building some of our own airplanes.”

Desmarais said that it changed his life, being a cadet.

“I had never actually been involved in aviation at all before I got involved in civil patrol,” he said. “I got my first orientation flight. That was the first time I had ever flown, and I was hooked. So, you know, I’ve gone on and got my pilot’s license and obviously done a lot of things in aviation with Civil Air Patrol over the years. But it’s pretty amazing what our cadets are able to do that as part of that program. So there’s lots of opportunities for cadets and in general, for members.”


The Civil Air Patrol has about 65,000 members, Desmarais said.

“A lot of the adult members are, not necessarily former cadets or even former military,” he said. “A lot of them are moms and dads of cadets that were people that were just generally interested in aviation. And so there’s lots of opportunities for them to support across all of our range of activities.”

Many members support the cadet program and others support operational missions — such as disaster relief.

“We also have some that, you know, they just see that their skills can be used as a good volunteer,” Desmarais said. “You know, we’re really a good way of giving back. Our mission statement is ‘Volunteers serving America’s community, saving lives and shaping futures.’

“And we really do a lot of that every day, and a lot of our adult members even get a lot of education that helps them in their day-to-day lives. You know, a lot of them are able to access instant command training and a lot of the emergency services, things that can also help them in their professional careers. But they also get access to a lot of leadership training and a lot of career development activities. They just, like a lot of our cadets, are really able to give back to the organization with that training. So, it’s pretty amazing.”

A lot of the data that the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) uses is collected by the Civil Air Patrol, Desmarais said.

There are 52 wings across the Civil Air Patrol — eight regions — the 50 states, the national capitol and a combined wing of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“So it’s a pretty amazing organization and our volunteers do some amazing things in a typical year,” he said. “Our CFP members are credited with saving, on average, 84 lives, and then our search and rescue activities. They’re incredibly dedicated … and we support pretty much every disaster out there on some level. You know, obviously, we are the largest single owner assessed to airplanes in the world. And we use those airplanes to support not only our program with flight training and those kinds of things, but we also do a lot of airborne imagery collection after disaster. So, a lot of times the imagery that you’re seeing from FEMA after a disaster, like [after] a

tornado goes through here in Alabama, was actually collected by our people.

“… We have a huge partnership with FEMA across the country, as well as with most of the state and local emergency management agencies to not only collect the airborne imagery using our airplanes or even small and manned aerial systems, but we also do a lot of the assessments. We’ve got about 1,000 people across the country that volunteer just to do assessments online of imagery. … After we collect that imagery, [following] a tornado, or a hurricane, or [flood] or you name it, those images are uploaded to a FEMA site for review and then they classify the damage.

“… When we’re supporting these disasters with that imagery assessment, those members, in many cases, what will happen is you work inventory during the day and they upload it to the FEMA site and people are assessing it. But now, we have members around the globe that are, the squadrons, they literally, you know, the sun doesn’t set on our squadrons around the globe now because we have them all over the place. We’ve got members in Korea, and Japan and Guam that will review imagery overnight so that when responders are going out the next day to do assessments and team is trying to decide where do we need to use the resources and have the same locals, they’ve got it readily available literally within an hour.”

Get Involved:

Desmarais said that the easiest way to get involved is on

There is a join button there on the website. This is the process for youth in the cadet program or adult volunteers.

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