On a cold and gray Saturday morning, a four-seater Cessna C-182 bearing Civil Air Patrol markings shuddered into life on an isolated airstrip in Gonzales.
Uniformed cadets backed out of the way as the propeller began to whirl. Others watched from the hangar while the wind howled louder and the drone of the engine deepened.
The plane taxied down the runway, picked up speed, then, all at once, lifted off the ground.
With that, the mock mission had begun.
The Civil Air Patrol’s Ascension Parish Composite Squadron calls this Louisiana Regional Airport its home base. It gathered there this weekend to showcase its role as local air support.
Composed of adults and cadets, the Civil Air Patrol is a volunteer-based auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. According to Public Affairs Officer Capt. Ken Best, CAP performs homeland security, disaster relief and drug interdiction missions, in addition to standard search-and-rescue procedures.
Funded in part by Ascension Parish government, the squadron provides disaster relief and emergency support services to the parish in times of crisis. During the 2016 flood, for instance, CAP took aerial photographs of the region that have since been used in flood planning and prevention.
The local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association also joined CAP later in the morning for jambalaya and to “talk flying” — a joint endeavor to encourage camaraderie in the aircraft community.
Before the demonstration, about 20 seniors and cadets milled about the cavernous hangar, bracing themselves against the chill.
When squadron Commander Maj. Phillip Smith called the room to order, he welcomed the attendees and bestowed several awards in thanks for unwavering support, including to Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa.
After, Lt. Col. Mickey Marchand, Louisiana Wing emergency services officer, described the mock exercise planned for the morning that mirrored an average search-and-rescue operation.
“We’re really a search-and-find organization,” Marchand explained. “Sometimes it’s picture-taking, sometimes it’s looking for a lost soul.”
A typical mission tends to last one to two hours, with an air and ground team working together to search for a downed plane’s signal.
“It’s a complex operation,” Chaplain (Maj.) John Tober said. “It’s every bit as sophisticated an operation as the Air Force does.”
As the squadron readied for the exercise, the five cadets prepped the plane for takeoff. Today, they would act as the ground team.
The cadet program, which enrolls youth ages 12 to 21, aims to “transform youths into dynamic Americans,” according to Smith.
While the mission kicked into gear, Lt. Col. Kathy Beauford, dressed in her replica Apollo moon suit, spoke to a few locals about aerospace education.
Though she was not up in the air that morning, Beauford often acts as a navigator and ground team leader. The day was a reminder of why she loves her work.
“It really gets your blood pumping when you know there may be a life at the end of the signal,” she said.