This time, they lost one of their own.
While searching for a downed flier in the snow-covered wilderness of the Angeles National Forest on Saturday, the Civil Air Patrol lost a crew in an accident just as sudden and tragic as the hundreds of aircraft crashes it searches for every year.
The unpaid civilian volunteers of this search-and-rescue arm of the Air Force fly in the most dangerous of circumstances--low, slow and typically over treacherous mountains in threatening weather.
On Saturday, that combination turned deadly as a Cessna 182 carrying pilot Robert A. Leman and observers Brian Perkin and James C. Spadafore, crashed on the rugged slopes of Mt. Baldy, killing all aboard.
Worsening weather forced the CAP aircraft out of the air, and on Sunday morning the Sheriff's Department located the wreck. And as the harsh weekend weather cleared to blue skies Monday, officials were able to remove the bodies. Just why the plane crashed is still under investigation.
It's been 12 years and thousands of missions since the Civil Air Patrol lost one of its crews in an air crash, and members of this quasi-military unit are taking the loss of the three members hard.
"We never expect this," said Patrol Chaplin Dan Dyer. "It's like losing part of your family."
In the search-and-rescue trade, you deal with someone's tragedy on just about every mission, added Col. Sydney Wolfe. "But it's not normally our own," said Wolfe, based in San Jose where the ill-fated flight originated. "A lot of us are in shock, disbelief. We just don't understand it."
The Civil Air Patrol is kind of a flying Red Cross, a Salvation Army in the sky that searches for lost aircraft, lends a hand in all sorts of natural disasters and provides training for youth.
The patrol--founded in 1941, just days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor--is the civilian auxiliary of the Air Force.
It's primary purpose is to lead missions to find missing aircraft and rescue survivors. In California alone last year it mounted more than 360 missions, making it the busiest of the 50 state organizations, or wings as they are known. Nationally, the CAP handles thousands of aerial missions each year.
The pilots and observers are all volunteers. About half of patrol members are pilots, but they all love aircraft and flying.
"It's the mystery of flying that has been felt since Kitty Hawk," said Capt. Wyn Selwyn, a member of the Francis Gary Powers Squadron based in Lancaster.
The roster of members is diverse, from truck drivers and clerks to doctors, academics and housewives. Many are retired, and many are veterans who like staying close to a military organization, said California Wing Commander Angelo Porco.
Most use their own aircraft without any reimbursement beyond a token payment for fuel. In California, there are more than 4,000 active members who supply several hundred private aircraft.
The CAP also owns and operates 27 small, single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft funded by grants from the Air Force.
These slow, propeller-driven aircraft are better suited for search efforts than the faster, state-of-the-art Air Force jets, because they can get closer to the ground and allow their binocular-wearing observers to take a longer look. "It's low, slow and dangerous," said Porco, noting that in searches, the aircraft are often just 500 feet above ground.
After last year's Northridge earthquake, the Civil Air Patrol used its crews and available aircraft to ferry public officials to disaster sites for inspections. The patrol also helped police and firefighters commute by air to affected areas in Los Angeles from their homes in far flung areas such as the Antelope Valley.
Sometimes, missions are more terrestrial. "After last year's earthquake, we flew forklifts and skip-loaders," to help in relief efforts, Porco said.
CAP members also are trained in land-rescue techniques and are often called on to help in wilderness searches. On Sunday, CAP members were among the 30 rescuers racing overland to the crash site hoping to find the three crew members still alive.
Such missions are mounted like any other complex military operation, said Selwyn, who first joined CAP in 1948 as a cadet.
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The Patrol (Southland Edition, A22)
The Civil Air Patrol is the civilian auxiliary of the Air Force that is chartered primarily to lead air search-and-rescue efforts and provide other emergency services. Its members are unpaid civilians.
* Formed: 1941
* Number of members: 4,000 statewide
* Pay: None. All members are volunteers, many of whom use their own aircraft.
* Background: Nearly half are trained pilots, and many are military veterans.
* Craft: The CAP has several hundred planes at its disposal, including 27 funded by the Air Force.
* Missions: More than 360 missions statewide last year, including relief efforts after the Northridge earthquake.