We three grown men occupied a space Saturday that was less roomy than the interior of a Mini Cooper, but our panoramic view of the Golden Isles was as vast as the horizon.
The space between the front windshield and the propeller did not appear large enough to hold a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine. However, we were in fact cruising faster than 100 mph, holding steady at 1,200 feet above the Altamaha River delta spread out below us.
Still, this old Cessna 172 Skyhawk is a very little airplane, even with the 180 horses under the hood. Just then, 10:52 a.m. to be specific, something from somewhere inside the knobs and dials on the plane’s control panel started going off like the security alarms at a compromised liquor store.
“Aha! That’s it,” pilot Bob Speight said, as if he expected this alarming development all along.
“OK, I think we’ve got it,” Greg Moore called out from what passes as a backseat on this little bird.
The two men conversed for the next couple of minutes in a series of aeronautical acronyms and numbered sequences that smacked of gibberish to the uninitiated. Suddenly, the Cessna teetered toward sideways as it banked into a turn that offered a nearly parallel view from the passenger side window of the forest below.
Welcome to the Civil Air Patrol, Coastal Patrol Base 6, St. Simons Island. This trusty old 2001 Cessna is the heart of the local CAP squadron’s lofty civilian mission to provide a protective eye in the sky along our stretch of coastal Georgia. Saturday’s exercise was actually part of the quarterly drill for CAP Group IV, which includes the aforementioned squadron based at McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport, as well as squadrons from Savannah, Statesboro, Augusta and Effingham County.
Speight is one of four CAP pilots with the St. Simons Island squadron, and also its squadron commander. Moore is among more than 30 volunteers who keep the local CAP activities running smoothly. On Saturday’s operation, Moore served as photographer and mission observer. A reporter with The Brunswick News was invited to ride along in the front passenger seat, for ballast perhaps.
The alarm that went off moments earlier was actually tethered electronically to a homing device known as an ELT. Every aircraft, everywhere, has an Electronic Location Transmitter these days. The things emit an emergency notice if a plane’s altimeter measures a sudden descent that would indicate distress.
In real life scenarios, the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center regularly calls on CAP squadrons across the country to respond in such emergencies. Nationwide, some 90 percent of calls to the center are ultimately entrusted to CAP squadrons.
Search and rescue crews such as that of Speight and Moore can hone in on the emergency transmission with GPS coordinates and pinpoint the exact location of the plane in distress. For this exercise, a fellow CAP volunteer had driven out to Jesup and covertly planted an ELT on the ground. Sort of a fox hunt in the sky.
We were over the Altamaha River basin in western Glynn County when the ELT alarm started caterwauling.
Seconds later Speight came out of the banking turn and into a path directly in line with the ribbon of U.S. Highway 341 below us. For the purposes of this exercise, it appears perhaps a pilot with engine trouble went down on or near this rural stretch of U.S. 341. “He was maybe in trouble and trying to use 341 as an emergency field,” Speight said.
As he circled a section of the railroad track that ran beside the highway, the ELT alarm grew louder, indicating we were closing in on it. “All right, Greg, standby for marking GPS coordinates,” Speight called out. “Thirty-one, twenty-two, fiftyish?”
To be precise, it was N 31 22.566 and W 08 37.138, according to the handheld GPS doohickey Greg handed up to me after jotting down the coordinates. “Got it,” he called up to Speight.
Their efforts Saturday marked the continuation of a Golden Isles aerial tradition that dates back to 1942 and the early days of World War II. That is when the first Civil Air Patrol formed at the airport on St. Simons Island, which at the time also was a naval air base.
Enemy submarines were a serious threat to the area, as evidenced by the German U-boat that torpedoed two merchant ships offshore from St. Simons Island and left 22 seamen dead on April 8, 1942. With legendary local pilot Sam Baker as its leader, the newly formed Civil Air Patrol vigilantly took to the skies and canvassed the offshore waters for signs of enemy threats. CAP pilots throughout the coastal U.S. played a significant role in the quick elimination of the menace of German U-boats.
The local CAP squadron has remained in service to coastal Georgia ever since. It is one of the oldest CAP squadrons in continuous operation in the U.S.
These days, folks like Speight, Moore and longtime local volunteers Joan and Roy Scarborough give freely of their time to maintain that commitment to service. In addition to being on standby for emergencies ranging from stranded boaters to downed private planes, the local CAP regularly conducts aerial patrols of our coastal and inland waterways.
CAP pilots take to the skies for Sundown Patrols four days a week, Thursday through Sunday, “looking for anything out of the ordinary,” Moore said. The Glynn County Commission allocates $12,500 annually to keep the Sundown Patrols flying.
After the ELT portion of the exercise wrapped up Saturday, Speight put the Cessna on northeasterly course for a pulp mill in rural Liberty County. The scenario involved post-storm damage reconnaissance, for which Moore had a zoom lens camera. Moore, who turned “a stone’s throw from the Ice Age” this year, was a CAP cadet as a teenager back in his native Indiana. After attending Indiana University on a full ROTC scholarship, Moore spent 12 years in the Air Force.
“I’ve been wearing a blue uniform since I was 14,” he said. “I’ve always been a believer in giving back and serving God. God, the Air Force and CAP have been so good to me over the last 50 years that I’m happy to give back some of my time.”
Moore opened a hatch in the side window, poked his camera lens out of it and snapped away as Speight made runs at 1,000 feet on either side of the pulp mill.
“You good?” Speight asked.
“Yeah, I’ve got enough photos,” he said.
The little Cessna skirted the coast on the leg back home to St. Simons Island. It was a stunning view, from the ocean waters swelling into waves along the beach to the artfully intricate blend of inland waterways and marshland beyond it. But all these two seemed interested in was spotting kayakers and boaters who might be in trouble.
Speight first got involved with CAP while still in high school back home in Dunwoody near Atlanta. He has been a licensed civilian pilot since he was a young man. A manager at the King and Prince Hotel on St. Simons Island, he got involved with the local CAP squadron eight years ago as a way to be of service and improve his flying skills.
“To me, it’s great fun,” said Speight, 50. “And it got me flying again, helped me become a better pilot. And there’s also the volunteer aspect of it. I’m out here helping out and that has been very rewarding.”