Addicted to Drugs: The Civil Air Patrol and Operation Drop-In

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AVweb's Jeb Burnside and Doug Ritter, both with long-term backgrounds in the CAP, take an in-depth look at Civil Air Patrol's Operation Drop-In. As a result of this program, the reaction among non-CAP pilots to their bretheren in blue has degenerated from feelings of benign neglect and occasionally simple dislike to unconcealed hostility. Jeb and Doug examine why this is happening, what went wrong, and suggest a solution. They also examine the positive side of CAP: one flawed decision does not make for an evil organization.

Civil Air Patrol seal ATISRecent reporting by AVweb and other aviation publications illuminating the Civil Air Patrol's (CAP) participation in Operation Drop-In and related anti-drug efforts by the federal government has highlighted a fundamental shift from the CAP's traditional primary mission, search and rescue. No longer is the organization's central focus on its role as the auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force but, increasingly, it is on new activities that have nothing to do with looking for missing aircraft and persons or its cadet programs. Those activities involve serving in a support role — a force multiplier, if you will — for the federal government's controversial drug interdiction efforts, as well as other federal law enforcement activities.

In fact, Operation Drop-In is just the latest, formal program involving the CAP and the nation's chief anti-drug agencies, the U.S. Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency. For years, the CAP has been engaged in flight operations on behalf of the federal government, flying federal law enforcement personnel and their equipment to search for clandestine airstrips and marijuana fields and flying the borders looking for smugglers, for example. Of course, as the CAP's drug-interdiction activities have grown in scope and frequency, so have its budget and its appetite for an ever-greater role to play. You could say that CAP is, itself, addicted to drugs.

What's All The Fuss?

As word of the CAP's involvement in Operation Drop-In has spread, so has grass roots opposition to this role, leading to a major and growing public relations problem for the organization. Of course, CAP has always had something of a public relations problem among many pilots. Much of this problem stems from the long-held perception among CAP members that being a member and wearing a uniform confers upon them some special authority. Manifestations of such attitudes tend to rub the general pilot population the wrong way. In particular, many in CAP tend to emphasize the military aspects of the organization, the uniforms, rank, decorations and regulations, turning off many pilots who see this enthusiasm for such trappings as misplaced and an insult to those who have served in the military, despite the fact that many in CAP are former military members. Some call this the "tin soldier" syndrome, itself a reason many decide not to join, or quickly drop out of CAP.

Non-members are sometimes envious of what they view as the CAP member's perks: free or reduced-cost flying time in equipment that often compares quite favorably to what is available at the local FBO. They probably don't know that members joke that CAP means "Come And Pay" for the myriad of expenses generally shouldered by those who are active members.

CAP  members flying a mission Animosity toward CAP can arise from many places. From the FBO who sees only the low-cost flying offered by CAP as a threat to his business. To the former member who cared not for the chain of command or who had a bad cadet experience, and to the fly-in visitor who has had a run-in with a poorly-trained CAP cadet providing directions to a parking spot.

Whatever the rationale, whatever the reason, the CAP's perception among average GA pilots is decidedly mixed. Over the years that perception has generally tended to get worse, not better, and CAP has generally done little to help matters. While most pilots generally agree that the CAP serves a useful function through its youth, aerospace education and SAR programs — especially its SAR programs — that understanding often dissolves into vehement opposition when Operation Drop-In is discussed. Reaction to this program and CAP's involvement has been far louder and more pronounced than the generally benign reaction to prior CAP efforts in government drug interdiction efforts which were focused solely on violators of the law with little or no interaction or involvement of the general pilot population at large.

Simply put, GA pilots go ballistic when they learn that the CAP is "spying" on them or their airplane. Despite the uniforms and military trappings, CAP is still viewed as civilian in nature and certainly not as law enforcement personnel. Pilots are an independent breed. If they weren't before they started flying, they became more independent after their newfound ability to pretty much go when and where they want became habit. The knowledge that Uncle Sugar is poking around airport ramps, jotting down notes on N-numbers and serial numbers, is viewed as yet another inch of the camel's nose under the tent leading to eradication of "general aviation as we know it." The CAP, as the organization implementing the government's anti-drug policy, comes in for the brunt of the criticism. Little opposition was heard when it was the National Guard carrying out the policy, though after being sensitized to the efforts by the CAP operation, that itself might change.

What are the CAP's anti-drug activities? How does Operation Drop-In mesh with the federal government's other antidrug activities? Most importantly, how did CAP's involvement in Operation Drop-In come about, how important is this involvement to the organization's future and what will that future include? Read on.

A Brief History of the CAP

CAP Subchasers Although its history dates from World War II, Congress "officially" created the Civil Air Patrol in 1946 to serve three primary missions: aerospace education, cadet programs and emergency services. Subsequently, in 1948, Congress designated the CAP as the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, shortly after the service itself was separated from the U.S. Army. These two congressional acts have their roots in the coastal patrol and submarine spotting efforts begun by volunteer general aviation pilots during World War II. After the war, rather than disband the CAP and give up the national asset it had become, Congress opted to formalize the organization and make it answerable to the Air Force.

In 1985, Congress' infinite wisdom lent itself to expanding the CAP's role, by adding support of law enforcement to the organization's missions. Interestingly, nowhere in any of its promotional literature, including that used to solicit new members, is mention made of this fourth mission. The following year, 1986, Congress put money where its mouth was by allocating some $7 million of that year's military appropriation to acquire "major items of equipment" need by CAP to accomplish its counter-drug reconnaissance mission. Since then, more and more federal agencies — including the FAA — have been enlisted to help the federal government wage its war against drugs.

Enter The FAA

FAA seal Skip to 1997. At that time, the FAA was developing its latest contribution to the federal government's antidrug effort — at least part of which has basically become Operation Drop-In — and learned of the CAP's role in supporting the DEA and the Customs Service. Run by the FAA's Office of Civil Aviation Security (ACS), the agency was seeking some way of enhancing its own mission, that of protecting "the users of commercial air transportation against terrorist and other criminal acts."

The ACS was developing a new counterdrug initiative and, through contacts in federal law enforcement, learned of the CAP's assistance to the U.S. Customs Service. One thing led to another and a Memorandum of Understanding was entered into between the FAA, the USAF and the CAP on May 15, 1997. Less than a month later, on June 8, 1997, AVweb first reported on Operation Drop-In. This MOU forms the underpinnings of Operation Drop-In, apparently flowing from ACS's Drug Investigations Support Program (DISP). According to the ACS's web site, this program is designed to assist "Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies with airborne drug interdiction," among other objectives. Apparently, those objectives include the euphemistically termed "surveys" of general aviation airports and the logging of N-numbers, aircraft data plates, etc.

So, Just What Is Operation Drop-In?

Good question. According to a "point paper" prepared by the CAP, Operation Drop-In involves conducting these surveys at GA airports "as directed by the FAA to assist in the identification of aircraft used in drug trafficking." The point paper goes on to note that "information collected by CAP volunteers on the surveys include the registration number and data plate information, as well as characteristics common to aircraft used in drug trafficking." The information, once collected, is then forwarded to the FAA, presumably the ASC. What the ASC does with it something of a mystery, but AVweb is reliably told that the agency compares the data from Operation Drop-In with its own data. Presumably, this means the aircraft registrations database. The agency then culls "most" of that information and ships the remainder to a clearinghouse operation created by the federal government to manage counter-drug activities. Many remain suspicious that the information not appropriate for investigation is, in fact, disposed of, remembering too many instances of drug enforcement agencies playing fast and loose with rules and civil law and intent.

CAP HQ All of which raises several more questions. AVweb has submitted to CAP HQ at Maxwell AFB several detailed questions regarding Operation Drop-In. Among the information we've sought is some idea of the use to which the FAA puts this data, the training and specific parameters used by CAP members participating in Operation Drop-In and the program's financial impact on the organization. We also asked for information on national participation in the program and whether any altercations have erupted. To date, however, we have yet to receive a response to our inquiries. As a result, we can't tell our readers what the historical results of Operation Drop-In have been.

We can't tell you what special training or equipment CAP units receive involving Operation Drop-In. We also can't tell you what kind of financial impact Operation Drop-In has had on the CAP, nor can we tell you the degree to which CAP units nationwide are participating in the program. This is a shame — and a disservice to rank and file CAP members — because the phenomenal interest in Operation Drop-In among general aviation pilots is growing daily. By addressing these questions and helping GA better understand the program, the CAP might possibly help to ward off criticism and tell its side of the story concerning the value of Operation Drop-In. As it is, however, the CAP's relative silence cannot but harm the organization.

What We Do Know

On the other hand, we do get lots of messages and reports from the field. Reports of entire CAP wings (what CAP calls the individual state organizations that make up CAP nationwide) opting out of the program, California and Ohio being two examples, according to our sources. Reports of many local squadrons declining to participate. Reports of long-time members deciding enough is enough and opting to leave the CAP. As we say, we tried to get a list from CAP, but they have so far declined to provide one. It appears that even within CAP, support for this program is mixed, with many members vehemently opposed to CAP's participation. This in spite of the fact that as a purely volunteer organization, nobody in CAP is obligated to participate if they don't want to.

We have also received disturbing reports such as the one from a CAP member who attended training given to Operation Drop-In participants where he says they were told, reading directly from official CAP documents, that if ever confronted at an airport while conducting a mission, to say that they are on a "flight training mission." In addition, they were told, if they don't see any "suspicious" aircraft,to just write down random N-numbers of whatever aircraft they do see and turn them in, clearly an action without the slightest probable cause.

 With CAP unwilling to provide any answers to our queries, AVweb is left to provide its own answers to many of these questions based on previously issued official information. One of them is what characteristics are common to aircraft use in drug trafficking? Think about it. Look for obvious signs of off-airport operation: dirt and mud, gravel dings, grass stains, etc. Just the kind of "evidence" exhibited by aircraft operating at the hundreds of perfectly legitimate grass and dirt airstrips around the country. Look also for signs of additional fuel capacity, like auxiliary tanks in the cabin. Like someone would use for an over-water ferry flight. "Stripped-down" aircraft, with otherwise normal equipment (seats, radios, etc.) removed to increase its useful load. Similar to what most parachute schools and organizations do with their jump planes. So far, no revelations here — just basic common sense and things the general aviation community has been aware of for years. And, things which have logical explanations and purposes for the most part.

Blacked out cabin windows, a tarp covering bulky cargo and/or loose "plant matter" in the cabin are also signs. Just the sort of thing pilots do to protect their interiors, especially in sunny climes near the southern border, and to protect valuable equipment from prying eyes and temptation. But, perhaps the most basic of information uncovered by Operation Drop-In is whether a displayed N-number matches the FAA's registration records when compared with the aircraft data plate. Seemingly, anyone can paint on their aircraft any N-number they want, with or without registering it with the FAA. Doing so, of course, is a clear violation of the FARs and is a red flag to anyone with a suspicious mind. Which basically means that such an option is not a good one for a drug smuggler. In fact, any airplane exhibiting such characteristics would raise eyebrows on any airport ramp or in any maintenance shop around the country.

Which highlights the basic flaw with and the fundamental source of opposition to Operation Drop-In among general aviation pilots: the kind of "evidence" being sought through the program is so obviously blatant, so apparent to a casual observer, that anyone engaged in drug smuggling would carefully avoid flying into any public airport with an airplane exhibiting these characteristics. As a result, Operation Drop-In and similar programs can only be viewed as focusing on otherwise law-abiding pilots and aircraft owners. Despite the fact that the aircraft being "surveyed" are parked in the open for anyone to see (a basic rule of Operation Drop-In specifies that no hangars are to be entered) the very idea that they are under suspicion by the federal government — and by the CAP, comprised as it is of fellow pilots — sends pilots and aircraft owners into orbit.

Many who seem to have difficulty understanding opposition to Operation Drop-In have compared it to neighborhood watch programs designed to prevent crime. The salient difference is that such neighborhood watch programs involve all the law abiding citizens of the block and deal only with situations where there is reasonable suspicion that something illegal is going on. These programs don't generally report law abiding activities or subject innocent citizens to some sort of review by a clandestine government operation based on criteria that is unknown, nor do the results end up in some national database.

In AVweb's view, the premise of Operation Drop-In — that drug smugglers use public airports with aircraft obviously used for such purposes — is so flawed that the program can only be viewed as a further intrusion into the privacy of general aviation pilots and aircraft owners. The CAP's involvement — aiding and abetting this invasion of privacy — is viewed as a blatant betrayal from within the "brotherhood" of aviation. Through its participation in Operation Drop-In, the Civil Air Patrol, as an institution, is being irreversibly harmed.

 As a result of Operation Drop-In, AVweb has seen the reaction among non-CAP pilots to their brethren in blue degenerate from feelings of benign neglect and simple dislike to unconcealed hostility. AVweb has watched the CAP's involvement with Operation Drop-In generate a growing backlash against the organization among pilots. Combine that backlash with the CAP's failure to either anticipate adverse reactions among its core constituency of general aviation pilots, or even among its own membership, or to proactively explain its role — including helping AVweb understand that role — and one begins to understand what the increasingly loud shouting within the GA community is all about.

We question how anyone is supposed to trust an organization that is telling its members to, if not tell an outright lie, at very best to stretch the truth to damn near breaking. What are other pilots supposed to think of CAP members willing to go along with such conduct in direct contradiction of the CAP standards of general conduct and ethics? What sort of message does that send to the cadets for whom seniors are supposed to set an example?

As this article was being prepared, CAP HQ informed AVweb that the organization's participation in Operation Drop-In was being "carefully considered." AVweb was told that Operation Drop-In was the subject of communications among the CAP's National Executive Committee — with the clear implication that Operation Drop-In was being reevaluated — and that a statement would be forthcoming from the National Commander no later than Friday, July 10. Unfortunately, that deadline came and went without any such statement.

For the Civil Air Patrol's sake, AVweb hopes that Operation Drop-In will, itself, be dropped by the organization and that the CAP will use the resources available to re-focus itself on its three core missions. Anything less will only serve to further remove the CAP from its general aviation roots and further alienate it from its core constituency. For the sake of the future of Civil Air Patrol, CAP must "just say no!"

A Valuable Organization

Without a doubt, Civil Air Patrol has a significant role to play in general aviation. The CAP's three main programs — Aerospace Education, Youth Development and Search and Rescue — have served both the organization and general aviation quite well during the 50-plus years of CAP's formal existence. In fact, many CAP cadets go on to successful military careers or into commercial aviation. The programs also serve to get teenagers off the street, provide them with (most of the time) excellent role models, valuable social development and interaction with their peers, plus instill in them the concepts of teamwork, achievement and leadership.

Of course, no discussion of the CAP's contributions would be complete without a deep bow to its Search and Rescue mission. Time and again, CAP volunteers have donated their valuable time, resources and — tragically — given their lives in attempting to locate downed aircraft and missing persons, to name but a very short list of typical SAR missions. CAP has also always been there in times of natural disaster, assisting with trained emergency service volunteers in addition to air operations.

Following are a few comments AVweb has received and public posts that have been made that highlight the constructive, worthwhile support CAP provides to general aviation.

  • "I had an older brother and a younger sister who took full advantage of the cadet and senior programs and certainly learned a lot from it. The exchange program and summer encampments are experiences that I can remember hearing about and wishing I were a part of. There was also a Ranger program that taught survival skills and it was certainly a huge status symbol to wear the orange ball cap of a Ranger because you had to earn it. We had a very vibrant and enthusiastic cadet squadron of around 40 members in our area...and it thrived on the enthusiasm of the senior leaders who really were interested in developing solid citizens."

  • "I joined the CAP Cadet program in about 1965, at the age of about fifteen. I had always had a strong interest in aviation, and wanted to be a fighter pilot. My experiences are not typical of all cadets, however, for three reasons: I was in a better squadron than most, I stayed longer than most cadets do, and I advanced farther and was involved in more programs than most cadets. Nevertheless, my experiences show what CAP is capable of."

  • "In light of how Civil Air Patrol is being consistently raked over the coals by most of the aviation community, I would like to forward this press release of a search mission that occurred last weekend resulting in four lives being saved in Oregon. Despite the public impression of Operation Drop-In, a VERY small part of our total mission, all members of CAP are still dedicated to doing what we do best, SAVING LIVES. If people would simply step back and look at the big picture of CAP, rather than fixating on Drop-In, they might realize that we still work very hard as volunteers, giving our time and money without any compensation, so that others may live."

  • We're having a nice time right now with a CAP squadron encampment at our gliderport. They GI-clean the place, help handle ships, feed the cat.... It all depends on leadership. The guy in charge has to have a firm grip on the testosterone valve. PS: This group's CO looked over our video collection, pulled out "Top Gun", and said, "Lock this up."

CAP is hardly perfect and it has its share of warts, as do all organizations, especially those run by and for volunteers. No need to dwell on that here. Participating in CAP activities is not inexpensive and members often must reach deep to participate. While the flying activities of CAP are the most visible, in most squadrons, non-pilots are the majority and whether in support roles or as ground team members, these individuals are essential to the fulfillment of CAP's many missions.

In balance, the work CAP does is of a positive nature, supports the betterment of general aviation and, by and large, is well received, if not always appreciated. CAP members spend countless hours at often thankless tasks to help make aviation safer and the world a better place.

For more information on the Civil Air Patrol or to find a CAP squadron near you, visit the CAP web site.


The authors of this article both have a longstanding relationship with the Civil Air Patrol.

As a cadet member of a composite squadron (senior and cadet members) in the early 1970s, one contributor accomplished his primary training, using the squadron's Cessna 150 and Piper Cherokee 140 at a very low hourly rate. Once he received his Private ticket, he went on to fly several actual SAR missions for that squadron and regularly patrolled the local Interstate highway on holiday weekends in search of obvious traffic problems. Later, after moving away from his hometown, he joined another squadron, rising to become a CAP Captain and mission pilot. Again, he flew several actual missions, plus countless practice sorties.

The other contributor got actively involved in CAP a few years ago because of his interest in SAR, after years of supporting CAP in various capacities. He has been recognized by the Wing commander for his unique contributions and flown on several missions, working towards mission pilot status. He wears a casual uniform or Nomex flight suit only when flying, as required by regulation, but is otherwise not inclined to be involved in the military aspects of CAP and has declined any promotion in rank for the same reason.

An Uneasy Feeling

Here at AVweb we have received a lot of feedback regarding our coverage of the CAP's Operation Drop-In. In round numbers, reader opinion is running 3 to 1 in opposition to the program. Perhaps more instructive, however, are the observations, first-hand accounts and information we have received from many readers. They have been de-identified where requested and names have been withheld. Below, we have included a handful of them, edited for space and punctuation, that are representative of the comments we have received.

  • "Part of the 'procedure' for CAP members was disclosed to me last night at a CAP meeting. It was read directly from a briefing and instruction pamphlet issued to CAP members engaged in Operation Drop-In. It calls for CAP members to go to an airport and record tail numbers of 'suspicious aircraft.' But (and here's the rub!), if there are no 'suspicious' aircraft to be seen, then they are instructed to record tail numbers of 'random' aircraft, and submit them to the Feds! If confronted during this activity, CAP members are instructed to state that they are on a 'flight training mission.' How's that for being up-front with General Aviation?"

  • "CAP has never been, and should not be, in the law enforcement business. Even the CAP's sponsoring agency, the U.S. Air Force, is prohibited by law from participating in law enforcement. CAP should give this mission back to the DEA, Customs Service, the National Guard (which are state militias legally authorized to perform such functions), and the other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to whom it rightly belongs."

  • "I found it quite disturbing that the New CAP (Civil Air Patrol) volunteers are getting underway to start doing drug enforcement... at our local fields. The program titled "Operation Drop-In" smacks of the nazi era.... The directive has them flying in unannounced to public owned airports and surveying every aircraft on the ramp. Looking for dirty airplanes with dirty undercarriages, rock hits...sanded propellers.... but are a few of the reasons to report the aircraft.... Reporting the N number, S/N, location and time of any aircraft THEY DEEM suspicious to the intelligence group they'll work for located in El Paso,TX."

  • "As a pilot and member of the Civil Air Patrol I welcome your inquires and exposition of the CAP Drop-In program. I am very suspicious of the direction in which any program of this type can lead an organization like the Civil Air Patrol. I am afraid in its search for funds CAP is too ready to participate in programs of which it ought be very careful. Civil Air Patrol is very well intentioned and respected and I am proud to be a member. I would not like to see a program such as the Drop-In program ruin or bring into disrepute CAP's operations."

  • "A week or two ago I was giving our little club's C-150G a much-needed bath. As I was washing off the only part of the plane with dirt (other than a little "hangar dust" on the upper surfaces), the underside, little did I realize that *had* someone from CAP's "Drop In" program dropped in on our little airport, I just *might* have been viewed with suspicion. Well, I was fortunate, because no one dropped in or drove in or anything. Bottom line is that the CAP ought to stick to the reasons that we have it in the first place: mainly search and rescue, introduction of flying to our youth, and education of same. Period!!!"

  • "Caught with genuine interest your note on the CAP 'drop-in' program. Odds are someone is going to loose some teeth over this. Reaction here in AZ on the ground has been mild curiousity to totally pissed. Local commander is very sensitive to the cooperation and respect of FBOs in carrying out CAP missions and the matter is being discussed at Wing level. Most CAP pilots feel it's not our affair — and very bad PR. (We've also had our funds cut to 'gas-and-oil' by the FAA. Gee, I thought we were an aux. of the Air Force. FAA's moving into the military, too."

  • "I am familiar with this program but did not directly participate. Also, I stopped my limited association and membership with the CAP mainly because of the 'New' attitude that some of the local senior members adopted ('copped') when they became involved in these 'clandestine' DEA flights. Don't cry for the Civil Air Patrol, Inc. Cry for what it is about to do to aviation."

  • "Ya know, every time a government gets behind and can no longer enforce all of its own coercion, they enlist the aid of some well-meaning yoyos who are more than willing to throw their weight around — albeit improperly, ignorantly, and dangerously. One of the first signs of a failing government is its willingness to get its citizens to spy on each other. CAP is one such bunch of unwitting accomplices to the guvments coercive mechanism. They need not be competent. The guvment is not interested in competence. It is interested in compliance."