Civil Air Patrol's first cadet program was started during World War II as a way to provide training for future pilots. Since then, the program has flourished, combining Aerospace Education with Leadership and Career training.
Today, CAP cadets are those members who join between their 12th and 18th birthday. Cadets who turn 18 may either become a Senior Member or remain a cadet until 21 at their own discretion. Cadets who join the military automatically become senior members when they receive their first orders.
As a Cadet progresses through the cadet program, they earn various achievements by successfully passing both Leadership and Aerospace Education tests. Test questions are derived from reading materials supplied to cadets, but the program is also designed to allow cadets to fill ever increasing leadership roles that are pertinent to their Leadership Studies questions.
As cadets advance through the ranks, they also progress through four stages of development.
- The first phase, The Learning Phase, introduces cadets to the CAP program, and cadets who pass all requirements receive the Wright Brothers award.
- The second phase, The Leadership Phase, begins placing more responsibility on cadets as leaders of newer cadets. Cadets who complete The Leadership Phase receive their Mitchell Award, and are eligible for advanced promotion upon enlisting in the military.
- The third phase, The Command Phase, places cadets directly in command of other cadets, allowing cadets to accomplish tasks through their staff members for the first time. Cadets who complete The Command Phase are awarded the Earhart Award.
- The Executive Phase is the last phase of the cadet program, and focus cadets on the operations of an entire unit. Cadets completing the command phase are awarded the Eaker Award, and may be awarded the Spaatz Award upon passing an extensive cumulative test.
As cadets progress through the program, they are placed in charge of lower ranking cadets. Cadet's aren't given full reign over the others, but instead are expected to instruct classes and mentor each other. Senior Members, the adults of the program, also play a large role in mentoring and evaluating cadets. The numerous awards, achievements, and opportunities available to Civil Air Patrol cadets allows them to foster their leadership in an academic and forgiving environment.
Civil Air Patrol also has several cadet squadrons located in middle schools. CAP's School Enrichment Program is a ready-to-use program for teachers and other mentors conduct leadership training through Aerospace Education classes. Students are introduced to the principles of flight, model rocketry, and also leadership.
Civil Air Patrol covers several Emergency Services areas. The principal categories include search and rescue missions, disaster relief, humanitarian services, and Air Force support. Other services, such as homeland security and actions against drug-trafficking operations, are becoming increasingly important.
Civil Air Patrol is well-known for its search activities in conjunction with search and rescue (SAR) operations. CAP is involved with approximately three quarters of inland SAR missions directed by the United States Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Outside of the continental United States, CAP directly supports the Joint Rescue Coordination Centers in Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. CAP is credited with saving an average of 100 lives per year.
CAP is active in disaster relief operations, especially in areas such as Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana that are frequently struck by hurricanes. CAP aircrews and ground personnel provide transportation for cargo and officials, aerial imagery to aid emergency managers in assessing damage, and donations of personnel and equipment to local, state and federal disaster relief organizations during times of need. In 2004, several hurricanes hit the southeast coast of the United States, with Florida being the worst damaged; CAP was instrumental in providing help to affected areas.
Civil Air Patrol conducts humanitarian service missions, usually in support of the Red Cross. CAP aircrews transport time-sensitive medical materials, including blood and human tissue, when other means of transportation (such as ambulances) are not practical or possible. Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City when all general aviation was grounded, one of the first planes to fly over the destroyed World Trade Center was a CAP aircraft taking photographs.
CAP performs several missions that are not combat-related in support of the United States Air Force, including damage assessment, transportation of officials, communications support and low-altitude route surveys.
As a humanitarian service organization, CAP assists federal, state and local agencies in preparing for and responding to homeland security needs. In particular, the CAP fleet is used in training exercises to prepare USAF pilots to intercept enemy aircraft over the Continental United States. Civil Air Patrol aircraft are flown into restricted airspace, where Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle pilots may practice high-speed intercepts.
The Red Cross, Salvation Army and other civilian agencies frequently ask Civil Air Patrol aircraft to transport vital supplies including medical technicians, medication, and other medical supplies. They often rely on CAP to provide airlift and communications for disaster relief operations. CAP also assists the United States Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Civil Air Patrol assists the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Drug Enforcement Administration, and United States Forest Service in the War on Drugs. In 2005, CAP flew over 12,000 hours in support of this mission and led these agencies to the confiscation of illegal substances valued at over US$400 million. Civil Air Patrol makes extensive use of the Airborne Real-time Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance system, mounted on the Gippsland GA8 Airvan. The system is able to evaluate spectral signatures given off by certain objects, allowing the system to identify, for example, a possible marijuana crop.
The Aerospace Education Program provides aviation related education and educational activities for members, including formal, graded courses about all aspects of aviation including flight physics, dynamics, history, and application. Courses covering the space program, and new technologies and advances in aviation and space exploration, are also available. There are several programs for CAP pilots to improve their flying skills and earn Federal Aviation Administration ratings.
The Cadet Program has a mandatory aerospace education program; in order to progress, a cadet must take a number of courses and tests relating to aviation. Cadets also have educational opportunities through museum tours, National Cadet Special Activities, military and civilian orientation rides, and guest speakers.
Senior members may study aerospace through the Senior Member Professional Development Program. CAP encourages its senior members to learn about aviation and its history, although this is not mandatory. Those who complete the Aerospace Education Program for Senior Members may earn the Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager Aerospace Education Award.
Through outreach programs, including the External Aerospace Education program, CAP helps school teachers integrate aviation and aerospace into the classroom by providing seminars, course materials and through sponsorship of the National Congress on Aviation and Space Education. Members also provide their communities with resources for better management of airports and other aviation-related facilities, and promote the benefits of such facilities. The organization also works with other groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts of the USA and 4-H to fulfill the education goal set down in the organizations congressional charter - to "encourage and foster civil aviation in local communities."