Membership in Payson’s Civil Air Patrol squadron is caught in a downdraft.
Commander Bill Hillman, the man currently piloting membership, says the group is at risk of a crash landing if it cannot recruit new flyers.
The squad has gone from 30 active volunteers to roughly a dozen and seen a dramatic drop in the number of high school cadets.
Membership in the group is not limited to pilots, retired military or even those who love to fly. Anyone with an interest in search and rescue is urged to attend one of the group’s meetings on the first Saturday of each month.
Hillman explains that what Tonto Rim Search and Rescue volunteers do by foot and the Gila County Mounted Posse does by horseback, the Civil Air Patrol does from the sky — but with a military twist.
An auxiliary of the Air Force since 1948, the Civil Air Patrol is charged with three humanitarian missions: aerospace education; educating new members and the community, cadet programs; developing the next generation of aerospace leaders and emergency services; conducting inland search and rescues, working with homeland security and transporting time-sensitive medical materials.
On a real-life mission last week, Civil Air Patrol squadrons from the around the state convened on Rim Country to search for a missing Mesa plane that vanished from radar just north of Payson.
After hours of searching, crews hadn’t spotted anything. Then, just as the winds kicked up and forced a crew to turn around, they spotted something. The next morning a helicopter confirmed it was the missing plane. The aircraft was buried so deep in a remote canyon it is a wonder anyone spotted it, Hillman said.
Missions like this reiterate how important the Civil Air Patrol is to the community, he added.
Besides looking for downed planes, the group helps locate missing motorists and hikers.
On all missions, each plane is sent out with a three-person crew. This includes a pilot, an observer who runs the radio and looks out right side of the plane, and a scanner who sits in the rear seat and scans to the left as well as taking photographs.
“That is the place for people who have an interest in aviation, but no real willingness to become a pilot, it gives them a chance to fly,” he said.
Both the co-pilot and rear scanner seats are open to all.
“We need pilots and non-pilots, as well as ground administrative personnel,” he said. “A military background is not required, although some of our members have prior military service.”
Hillman, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, joined the Payson squadron two years ago after retiring from Delta Airlines.
While he and his wife relocated from Tucson to Pine for the cooler weather, Hillman’s love of flying didn’t cool.
“I have been flying about 44 years professionally,” he said. “I was looking for a way to continue flying and volunteer.”
While membership was relatively high when Hillman joined, a number of members moved and no real effort was made to replace them.
“Presently, our membership is lower than optimum and we are actively seeking adult volunteers who wish to participate and serve the community,” Hillman said.
Hillman said he worries if they don’t get new people soon they could lose the group’s aircraft.
The Air Force has provided the group with a turbocharged Cessna 182 aircraft with a glass cockpit and advanced avionics.
The group is lucky to have an aircraft at all, given that several squadrons, including Sedona and Show Low don’t have their own plane.
The Air Force funds the group’s missions and trainings, but the group is required to cover a $150 monthly charge to keep the plane in a hangar.
With only a dozen members, the cost burden is high. More volunteers mean that cost is distributed.
Members must complete several weeks of online training and pay $75 annual dues.
But for all that, they get to fly several times a month on training missions, he said.
“On occasion we support military training missions by posing as airborne drug traffickers that get intercepted by the Air Force fighters and other military and law enforcement aircraft,” he said.
For more information on the group or to join, contact Hillman at (928) 476-6541.