Civil Air Patrol lets cadets test their wings

GREENWOOD – Bailey Hoffeditz had thought about joining the Air Force Junior ROTC but had difficulty finding a nearby squadron. She discovered the Civil Air Patrol instead, and two years later, she now is a cadet chief master sergeant and flight sergeant for the McHenry County Composite Squadron.

“I kind of found out by accident on the Internet, and I’m really glad I did,” said Hoffeditz, 17, of Island Lake.

“I went on their website, saw when they had meetings, and pretty much just showed up.”

Steve Cox, public affairs manager at the Civil Air Patrol’s national headquarters, said there were about 60,000 members, including more than 24,000 cadets nationwide. Participants must be 12 years old to join.

Civil Air Patrol is the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force and has three main missions: emergency services, aerospace education and cadet programs. The latter is a focus for the McHenry County squadron, said John Kohler, a senior member and public affairs officer.

There also is a Lake in the Hills squadron.

“The Civil Air Patrol originally started as civilian pilots patrolling our borders and the seas for submarines,” Kohler said.

From there, it grew.

“In the space shuttle disasters, the Civil Air Patrol was called in for that to look for pieces and parts,” Kohler said. “Civil Air Patrol searched for Steve Fossett.”

Members of the McHenry County squadron meet Tuesday evenings and start with drills before classroom time with topics such as aerodynamics.

But more time in class shouldn’t be a deterrent from joining, Hoffeditz said.

“It’s generally interactive, and it’s not as boring as school can sometimes be,” she said.

For example, during an aerospace class, cadets made several different rockets and later set them off, she said.

Although some cadets go on to have pilot training, it is not required. Nationally, the organization has about 550 powered aircraft, and most cadets take orientation flights, Cox said.

Kohler has been a senior member for about a year in a half, but his son, Ross, has been involved with the program for more than five years and is a cadet lieutenant colonel.

Seventeen-year-old Ross Kohler has known since he was 6 or 7 years old that he wanted to join the Air Force, inspired by an uncle.

He recently returned from Cadet Survival School in Maryland. Encampments and other academies have taught him stress management skills that he feels have better prepared him for basic training.

But John Kohler said he tried to make it clear to parents that the program was not intended to push kids into the military. It can be off-putting for parents to see children in Air Force Blues or battle dress uniforms, he said.

“The focus is leadership in all aspects, both the moral leadership aspect and leading their peers and working with senior members,” he said.

Still, cadet programs provide about 10 percent of each year’s new classes entering the U.S. Air Force Academy. Also, cadets who enlist in the Air Force, Army or Coast Guard may enter at a higher pay grade if they reach certain milestones. Or they may be eligible for scholarships through their affiliation with the Civil Air Patrol.

Ross Kohler said he knew a few cadets who joined thinking that they would like to enlist, but changed their mind and decided that it wasn’t right for them.

“Rather than doing something they’re not going to enjoy later in life, they found out now,” he said.

Hoffeditz said she had yet to decide whether she would join the Air Force or go to college after high school, where she would major in international relations.

“[Joining the Air Force is] something I’ve been considering off and on, but that’s why I’m really glad I joined this program,” Hoffeditz said. “It’s given me a taste, however small, of what military life might be.”

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