Air patrol plays vital role: Local unit develops cadets' leadership, character

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Click here for a video on the Civil Air Patrol squadron produced by Times journalist Drew C. Wilson.

As a member of the Civil Air Patrol, Lt. Col. Dion Viventi has been called to serve in numerous disasters.

He has responded in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Viventi and other members of the Tar River Composite Squadron are currently on call to respond if needed for Hurricane Irma.

The squadron is based at the Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport, of which Viventi is managing director.

“FEMA will probably call us and ask us for our assistance in doing some airborne photo reconnaissance, which we’re good at. We’ve got trained airborne photographers we take up in the airplane,” Viventi said. “We’ve got really, really excellent equipment that we can take up in the aircraft, whether it’s fixed to the wing or in the cockpit with an observer. We’re good at taking pictures of damage from flooding or wind damage. We upload all of these pictures once we get on the ground to the FEMA website directly through their system and they are able to merge them together to get an instantaneous picture of what’s going on after the hurricane comes through.”

The Civil Air Patrol is a force multiplier in its role as an auxiliary for the Air Force.

“We are a part of the Air Force total force in conjunction with the reserves and the regular units and the National Guard, so they include us in their total force team,” Viventi said. “When they are exhausting their assets, they call upon us to backfill for the jobs that small aircraft can do. We’re a big money-saver for them. It only costs about roughly $150 an hour to operate a Civil Air Patrol aircraft. Of course, we are all volunteers. They take care of us with room and boarding and stuff like that while we are on duty on order with the Air Force.”

The local squadron is getting a lot stronger, with 17 senior members and 16 cadets, according to Maj. Will Hess, of Elm City, who is squadron commander.

“We still are cadet-focused, but we’ve got some more adults here who are involved and interested in doing the operational side for the Civil Air Patrol,” Hess said.

Leadership development and character development are hallmarks of the cadet program.

“We get them trained up through the program. We give them responsibility for training others who come in. As they advance through the program, earn stripes and become cadet officers, they get more responsibilities expected of them,” Hess said. “We want to be a cadet-run program, which means that the adult members would be back here providing guidance, providing oversight and maybe providing a little course correction when things are starting to go a little bit sideways.”

If cadets complete the same training that adults complete, they are integrated into the emergency services operations. When they turn 18 years old, cadets can train for air crew positions and be scanners or observers in the aircraft. When they are 15 years old, cadets can start doing flight training if aircraft and instructors are available.

“There’s lot of different opportunity for cadets,” Hess said. “The fact that we are operational and not just academic is what sets us apart from the other cadet programs out there.”

Lt. Col. Linwood Barkley, of Rocky Mount, has been with the squadron since 1952.

“The main thing in Civil Air Patrol, to me, is the cadet program. They are fascinating,” Barkley said. “We are in good hands for our future. They are some very intelligent, nice, well-mannered young people around that you don’t hear anything about because they are not newsworthy. These kids are here trying to better themselves and do something for their future. They are here making a future for themselves.”

2nd Lt. John Slatner, of Sims, joined the program recently and is working to become a mission pilot.

“I wanted to give back to the community and this is a way that I could use my skill set as someone who is a pilot and is conscious with safety,” Slatner said.

The cadets, Slatner said, have a vision for themselves.

“They have a dream and they are doing effort that is required to get to that level,” Slatner said.

Cadet 1st Lt. Richard Green, of Wilson, a 2017 graduate of Hunt High School, is one of those with high aspirations.

Green wants to be an astronaut and his volunteerism in the CAP is part of the training on his way to accomplishing that goal.

“I also have learned a fair amount in the Civil Air Patrol in the course of what I have been doing,” said Green, who is currently learning to fly in the organization.

“The Civil Air Patrol has the most Cessnas out of any organization in the world,” Green said. “It has high wings which make it much better for the aerial photography because you don’t have the wings in the way for pointing the camera downward. They are faster than a Piper Cub by a fair margin. Some of the newer ones also have good glass cockpits and autopilot systems. They are also quite stable. The Civil Air Patrol has also modified them to have a fairly comprehensive suite of sensors on them for the search and rescue purposes, stuff to find the emergency beacons and things like that.”

The CAP has 16 aircraft in the state and they are stationed in various places and shared between squadrons.

The public affairs officer for the squadron is 2nd Lt. Liz Dunster, who is parent to Cadet Green.

“I have seen what the program does for him,” Dunster said. “It does things for youngsters who have an interest in aviation in particular that the schools can’t do. There are very few high schools in this country or any country where you can go flying or learn to go flying and also be around other youngsters who have an interest or an obsession that’s similar to yours. Also, the program gives them leadership opportunities. I also like that it is a program that boys and girls can do together.”

Cadet Chief Master Sgt. Alex Cherry, 15, of Wilson, has been in the CAP since 2014.

“Being in the Civil Air Patrol, I get many opportunities,” Cherry said. “We go out and do search and rescue, so that’s a really cool thing I’ve been able to do. Being able to fly, that’s really awesome too. One of our core values is leadership and I think that’s helping me grow into more of an independent man, how to lead and how to respect.”

Cadets meet from 7 to 9 p.m. each Thursday at the Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport at 7972 FAA Drive, Elm City.

For more information, call 252-292-7648. The unit has a Facebook page at “Tar River Composite Squadron, Civil Air Patrol.”