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

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 sealATISRecent reporting by AVweb and other aviationpublications illuminating the Civil Air Patrol’s (CAP) participationin Operation Drop-In and related anti-drug efforts by the federalgovernment has highlighted a fundamental shift from the CAP’straditional primary mission, search and rescue. No longer isthe organization’s central focus on its role as the auxiliaryto the U.S. Air Force but, increasingly, it is on new activitiesthat have nothing to do with looking for missing aircraft andpersons or its cadet programs. Those activities involve servingin a support role — a force multiplier, if you will — for thefederal government’s controversial drug interdiction efforts,as well as other federal law enforcement activities.

In fact, Operation Drop-In is just the latest, formalprogram involving the CAP and the nation’s chief anti-drug agencies,the U.S. Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Foryears, the CAP has been engaged in flight operations on behalfof the federal government, flying federal law enforcement personneland their equipment to search for clandestine airstrips and marijuanafields and flying the borders looking for smugglers, for example. Of course, as the CAP’s drug-interdiction activities have grownin scope and frequency, so have its budget and its appetite foran 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-Inhas spread, so has grass roots opposition to this role, leadingto a major and growing public relations problem for the organization. Of course, CAP has always had something of a public relationsproblem among many pilots. Much of this problem stems from thelong-held perception among CAP members that being a member andwearing a uniform confers upon them some special authority. Manifestationsof such attitudes tend to rub the general pilot population thewrong way. In particular, many in CAP tend to emphasize themilitary aspects of the organization, the uniforms, rank, decorationsand regulations, turning off many pilots who see this enthusiasmfor such trappings as misplaced and an insult to those who haveserved in the military, despite the fact that many in CAP areformer military members. Some call this the "tin soldier"syndrome, itself a reason many decide not to join, or quicklydrop out of CAP.

Non-members are sometimes envious of what they viewas the CAP member’s perks: free or reduced-cost flying time inequipment that often compares quite favorably to what is availableat the local FBO. They probably don’t know that members jokethat CAP means "Come And Pay" for the myriad of expensesgenerally shouldered by those who are active members.

CAP  members flying a missionAnimosity toward CAP can arise from many places. From the FBO who sees only the low-cost flying offered by CAPas a threat to his business. To the former member who cared notfor the chain of command or who had a bad cadet experience, andto the fly-in visitor who has had a run-in with a poorly-trainedCAP cadet providing directions to a parking spot.

Whatever the rationale, whatever the reason, theCAP’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 usefulfunction through its youth, aerospace education and SAR programs— especially its SAR programs — that understanding often dissolvesinto vehement opposition when Operation Drop-In is discussed. Reaction to this program and CAP’s involvement has been far louderand more pronounced than the generally benign reaction to priorCAP efforts in government drug interdiction efforts which werefocused solely on violators of the law with little or no interactionor involvement of the general pilot population at large.

Simply put, GA pilots go ballistic when they learnthat the CAP is "spying" on them or their airplane. Despite the uniforms and military trappings, CAP is still viewedas civilian in nature and certainly not as law enforcement personnel. Pilots are an independent breed. If they weren’t before theystarted flying, they became more independent after their newfoundability 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 viewedas yet another inch of the camel’s nose under the tent leadingto eradication of "general aviation as we know it." The CAP, as the organization implementing the government’s anti-drugpolicy, comes in for the brunt of the criticism. Little oppositionwas 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 doesOperation Drop-In mesh with the federal government’s other antidrugactivities? Most importantly, how did CAP’s involvement in OperationDrop-In come about, how important is this involvement to the organization’sfuture and what will that future include? Read on.

A Brief History of the CAP

CAP SubchasersAlthough its history dates from World War II, Congress"officially" created the Civil Air Patrol in 1946 toserve three primary missions: aerospace education, cadet programsand emergency services. Subsequently, in 1948, Congress designatedthe CAP as the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, shortlyafter the service itself was separated from the U.S. Army. Thesetwo congressional acts have their roots in the coastal patroland submarine spotting efforts begun by volunteer general aviationpilots during World War II. After the war, rather than disbandthe CAP and give up the national asset it had become, Congressopted to formalize the organization and make it answerable tothe Air Force.

In 1985, Congress’ infinite wisdom lent itself toexpanding the CAP’s role, by adding support of law enforcementto the organization’s missions. Interestingly, nowhere in anyof its promotional literature, including that used to solicitnew members, is mention made of this fourth mission. The followingyear, 1986, Congress put money where its mouth was by allocatingsome $7 million of that year’s military appropriation to acquire"major items of equipment" need by CAP to accomplishits counter-drug reconnaissance mission. Since then, more andmore federal agencies — including the FAA — have been enlistedto help the federal government wage its war against drugs.

Enter The FAA

FAA sealSkip to 1997. At that time, the FAA was developingits 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 theCustoms 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 transportationagainst terrorist and other criminal acts."

The ACS was developing a new counterdrug initiativeand, through contacts in federal law enforcement, learned of theCAP’s assistance to the U.S. Customs Service. One thing led toanother and a Memorandum of Understanding was entered into betweenthe FAA, the USAF and the CAP on May 15, 1997. Less than a monthlater, on June 8, 1997, AVweb first reported on OperationDrop-In. This MOU forms the underpinnings of Operation Drop-In,apparently flowing from ACS’s Drug Investigations Support Program(DISP). According to the ACS’sweb site,this program is designed to assist "Federal, state, and locallaw enforcement agencies with airborne drug interdiction,"among other objectives. Apparently, those objectives includethe euphemistically termed "surveys" of general aviationairports 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 thesesurveys at GA airports "as directed by the FAA to assistin the identification of aircraft used in drug trafficking." The point paper goes on to note that "information collectedby CAP volunteers on the surveys include the registration numberand data plate information, as well as characteristics commonto 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 AVwebis reliably told that the agency compares the data from OperationDrop-In with its own data. Presumably, this means the aircraftregistrations database. The agency then culls "most"of that information and ships the remainder to a clearinghouseoperation created by the federal government to manage counter-drug activities. Many remain suspicious that the informationnot appropriate for investigation is, in fact, disposed of, rememberingtoo many instances of drug enforcement agencies playing fast andloose with rules and civil law and intent.

CAP HQAll of which raises several more questions. AVwebhas submitted to CAP HQ at Maxwell AFB several detailed questionsregarding Operation Drop-In. Among the information we’ve soughtis some idea of the use to which the FAA puts this data, the trainingand specific parameters used by CAP members participating in OperationDrop-In and the program’s financial impact on the organization. We also asked for information on national participation in theprogram 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 OperationDrop-In have been.

We can’t tell you what special training or equipmentCAP units receive involving Operation Drop-In. We also can’ttell you what kind of financial impact Operation Drop-In has hadon the CAP, nor can we tell you the degree to which CAP unitsnationwide are participating in the program. This is a shame— and a disservice to rank and file CAP members — because thephenomenal interest in Operation Drop-In among general aviationpilots is growing daily. By addressing these questions and helpingGA better understand the program, the CAP might possibly helpto ward off criticism and tell its side of the story concerningthe value of Operation Drop-In. As it is, however, the CAP’srelative silence cannot but harm the organization.

What We Do Know

On the other hand, we do get lots of messages andreports from the field. Reports of entire CAP wings (what CAPcalls 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 decliningto participate. Reports of long-time members deciding enoughis enough and opting to leave the CAP. As we say, we tried toget a list from CAP, but they have so far declined to provideone. It appears that even within CAP, support for this programis 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 asthe one from a CAP member who attended training given to OperationDrop-In participants where he says they were told, reading directlyfrom officialCAP documents, that if ever confronted at an airport while conductinga 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 aircraftthey do see and turn them in, clearly an action without the slightestprobable cause.

 With CAP unwilling to provide any answers to ourqueries, AVweb is left to provide its own answers to manyof these questions based on previously issued official information. One of them is what characteristics are common to aircraft usein drug trafficking? Think about it. Look for obvious signsof off-airport operation: dirt and mud, gravel dings, grass stains,etc. Just the kind of "evidence" exhibited by aircraftoperating at the hundreds of perfectly legitimate grass and dirtairstrips around the country. Look also for signs of additionalfuel capacity, like auxiliary tanks in the cabin. Like someonewould 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 parachuteschools and organizations do with their jump planes. So far, norevelations here — just basic common sense and things the generalaviation community has been aware of for years. And, things whichhave logical explanations and purposes for the most part.

Blacked out cabin windows, a tarp covering bulkycargo and/or loose "plant matter" in the cabin are alsosigns. Just the sort of thing pilots do to protect their interiors,especially in sunny climes near the southern border, and to protectvaluable equipment from prying eyes and temptation. But, perhapsthe most basic of information uncovered by Operation Drop-In iswhether a displayed N-number matches the FAA’s registration recordswhen compared with the aircraft data plate. Seemingly, anyonecan paint on their aircraft any N-number they want, with or withoutregistering it with the FAA. Doing so, of course, is a clearviolation of the FARs and is a red flag to anyone with a suspiciousmind. Which basically means that such an option is not a goodone for a drug smuggler. In fact, any airplane exhibiting suchcharacteristics would raise eyebrows on any airport ramp or inany maintenance shop around the country.

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

Many who seem to have difficulty understanding oppositionto Operation Drop-In have compared it to neighborhood watch programsdesigned to prevent crime. The salient difference is that suchneighborhood watch programs involve all the law abiding citizensof the block and deal only with situations where there is reasonablesuspicion that something illegal is going on. These programsdon’t generally report law abiding activities or subject innocentcitizens to some sort of review by a clandestine government operationbased on criteria that is unknown, nor do the results end up insome national database.

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

 As a result of Operation Drop-In, AVweb hasseen the reaction among non-CAP pilots to their brethren in bluedegenerate from feelings of benign neglect and simple disliketo unconcealed hostility. AVweb has watched the CAP’sinvolvement with Operation Drop-In generate a growing backlashagainst the organization among pilots. Combine that backlashwith the CAP’s failure to either anticipate adverse reactionsamong its core constituency of general aviation pilots, or evenamong its own membership, or to proactively explain its role —including helping AVweb understand that role — and onebegins to understand what the increasingly loud shouting withinthe GA community is all about.

We question how anyone is supposed to trust an organizationthat is telling its members to, if not tell an outright lie, atvery best to stretch the truth to damn near breaking. What areother pilots supposed to think of CAP members willing to go alongwith such conduct in direct contradiction of the CAP standardsof general conduct and ethics? What sort of message does thatsend to the cadets for whom seniors are supposed to set an example?

As this article was being prepared, CAP HQ informedAVweb that the organization’s participation in OperationDrop-In was being "carefully considered." AVwebwas told that Operation Drop-In was the subject of communicationsamong the CAP’s National Executive Committee — with the clearimplication that Operation Drop-In was being reevaluated — andthat a statement would be forthcoming from the National Commanderno later than Friday, July 10. Unfortunately, that deadline cameand went without any such statement.

For the Civil Air Patrol’s sake, AVweb hopesthat Operation Drop-In will, itself, be dropped by the organizationand that the CAP will use the resources available to re-focusitself on its three core missions. Anything less will only serveto further remove the CAP from its general aviation roots andfurther alienate it from its core constituency. For the sakeof the future of Civil Air Patrol, CAP must "just sayno!"

A Valuable Organization

Without a doubt, Civil Air Patrol has a significantrole 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 quitewell during the 50-plus years of CAP’s formal existence. In fact,many CAP cadets go on to successful military careers or into commercialaviation. The programs also serve to get teenagers off the street,provide them with (most of the time) excellent role models, valuablesocial development and interaction with their peers, plus instillin them the concepts of teamwork, achievement and leadership.

Of course, no discussion of the CAP’s contributionswould be complete without a deep bow to its Search and Rescuemission. Time and again, CAP volunteers have donated their valuabletime, resources and — tragically — given their lives in attemptingto locate downed aircraft and missing persons, to name but a veryshort list of typical SAR missions. CAP has also always beenthere in times of natural disaster, assisting with trained emergencyservice volunteers in addition to air operations.

Following are a few comments AVweb has receivedand 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 sisterwho took full advantage of the cadet and senior programs and certainlylearned a lot from it. The exchange program and summer encampmentsare experiences that I can remember hearing about and wishingI were a part of. There was also a Ranger program that taughtsurvival skills and it was certainly a huge status symbol to wearthe orange ball cap of a Ranger because you had to earn it. Wehad a very vibrant and enthusiastic cadet squadron of around 40members in our area…and it thrived on the enthusiasm of thesenior leaders who really were interested in developing solidcitizens."

  • "I joined the CAP Cadet program in about1965, at the age of about fifteen. I had always had a stronginterest in aviation, and wanted to be a fighter pilot. My experiencesare not typical of all cadets, however, for three reasons: I wasin a better squadron than most, I stayed longer than most cadetsdo, and I advanced farther and was involved in more programs thanmost cadets. Nevertheless, my experiences show what CAP is capableof."

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

  • We’re having a nice time right now with a CAPsquadron 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 testosteronevalve. 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 activitiesis not inexpensive and members often must reach deep to participate. While the flying activities of CAP are the most visible, in mostsquadrons, non-pilots are the majority and whether in supportroles or as ground team members, these individuals are essentialto the fulfillment of CAP’s many missions.

In balance, the workCAP does is of a positive nature, supports the betterment of generalaviation and, by and large, is well received, if not always appreciated. CAP members spend countless hours at often thankless tasks tohelp 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 theCAP web site.

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

As a cadet member ofa composite squadron (senior and cadet members) in the early1970s, one contributor accomplished his primary training, usingthe squadron’s Cessna 150 and Piper Cherokee 140 at a very lowhourly rate. Once he received his Private ticket, he went onto fly several actual SAR missions for that squadron and regularlypatrolled the local Interstate highway on holiday weekends insearch of obvious traffic problems. Later, after moving awayfrom his hometown, he joined another squadron, rising to becomea CAP Captain and mission pilot. Again, he flew several actualmissions, plus countless practice sorties.

The other contributor got actively involved in CAPa few years ago because of his interest in SAR, after years ofsupporting CAP in various capacities. He has been recognizedby the Wing commander for his unique contributions and flown onseveral missions, working towards mission pilot status. He wearsa casual uniform or Nomex flight suit only when flying, as requiredby regulation, but is otherwise not inclined to be involved inthe military aspects of CAP and has declined any promotion inrank for the same reason.

An Uneasy Feeling

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

  • "Part of the ‘procedure’ for CAP memberswas disclosed to me last night at a CAP meeting. It was read directlyfrom a briefing and instruction pamphlet issued to CAP membersengaged in Operation Drop-In. It calls for CAP members to go toan airport and record tail numbers of ‘suspicious aircraft.’ But(and here’s the rub!), if there are no ‘suspicious’ aircraft tobe seen, then they are instructed to record tail numbers of ‘random’aircraft, and submit them to the Feds! If confronted during thisactivity, CAP members are instructed to state that they are ona ‘flight training mission.’ How’s that for being up-front withGeneral 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 inlaw enforcement. CAP should give this mission back to the DEA,Customs Service, the National Guard (which are state militiaslegally 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 NewCAP (Civil Air Patrol) volunteers are getting underway to startdoing drug enforcement… at our local fields. The program titled"Operation Drop-In" smacks of the nazi era…. Thedirective has them flying in unannounced to public owned airportsand surveying every aircraft on the ramp. Looking for dirty airplaneswith dirty undercarriages, rock hits…sanded propellers…. butare a few of the reasons to report the aircraft…. Reportingthe N number, S/N, location and time of any aircraft THEY DEEMsuspicious to the intelligence group they’ll work for locatedin El Paso,TX."

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

  • "A week or two ago I was giving our littleclub’s C-150G a much-needed bath. As I was washing off the onlypart of the plane with dirt (other than a little "hangardust" on the upper surfaces), the underside, little did Irealize that *had* someone from CAP’s "Drop In" programdropped in on our little airport, I just *might* have been viewedwith suspicion. Well, I was fortunate, because no one droppedin or drove in or anything. Bottom line is that the CAP oughtto stick to the reasons that we have it in the first place: mainlysearch and rescue, introduction of flying to our youth, and educationof same. Period!!!"

  • "Caught with genuine interest your noteon the CAP ‘drop-in’ program. Odds are someone is going to loosesome teeth over this. Reaction here in AZ on the ground has beenmild curiousity to totally pissed. Local commander is very sensitiveto the cooperation and respect of FBOs in carrying out CAP missionsand the matter is being discussed at Wing level. Most CAP pilotsfeel it’s not our affair — and very bad PR. (We’ve also hadour funds cut to ‘gas-and-oil’ by the FAA. Gee, I thought wewere an aux. of the Air Force. FAA’s moving into the military,too."

  • "I am familiar with this program but didnot directly participate. Also, I stopped my limited associationand 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’ DEAflights. Don’t cry for the Civil Air Patrol, Inc. Cry for whatit is about to do to aviation."

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