Our Town: Sandy SpringsAir patrol program teaches search-and-rescue skills

The Sandy Springs Civil Air Patrol Cadet Squadron

7 - 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays

St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church, 7171 Glenridge Drive

770-928-3227; www.GA045.org

Information about the Civil Air Patrol is online at www.gocivilairpatrol.com.

Brian Berry was 13 years old when he joined the Sandy Springs squadron of the Civil Air Patrol. And he’s never left: The 52-year-old Delta pilot holds the CAP rank of lieutenant colonel, a job that includes giving area teens their first glimpse of military life.

“The Civil Air Patrol is the civilian auxiliary of the Air Force; we are not members of the military, but it is a military training program,” explained Berry, who lives in Midtown. “Our members learn how to salute and drill, and we teach leadership. But anyone can join; we accept civilians of all ages.”

The Civil Air Patrol, founded in 1941, has about 57,000 members nationwide who focus on inland search-and-rescue missions and who volunteer with special missions at the request of federal, state or local authorities. The affiliation with the Air Force means that members wear similar uniforms with CAP insignias, and there’s an emphasis on aerospace education, from planes to rockets.

“But searching for missing airplanes has been our most visible activity,” said Berry, who has been part of teams that conducted intense searches around north Georgia. “Our squadron is unique in that we focus on training cadets in search and rescue from the ground side, not the air.”

The Sandy Springs group - known as the “Flying 45th” - is unique in other ways as well. Having been chartered in 1963, it recently marked its 50th anniversary, making it one of the region’s oldest. Its members sport a special badge depicting cartoon character Snoopy in his World War I Flying Ace outfit - a design that was approved by Snoopy’s creator, Charles Schulz. In addition, the squadron has met consistently on Wednesday nights at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church on Glenridge Drive for almost 40 years.

“We even met on New Year’s Day,” said Berry with a laugh.

The squadron has about 70 members, 50 of whom are teens who live across the northern arc. Applicants must be at least 12 years old and in the sixth grade. Many of those who join hear about the group through word-of-mouth or through schools that suggest CAP as a great way to prepare for ROTC scholarships or service academies for the Navy, Air Force and Army.

“If they join before they’re 18, it’s a great way to get visibility with the academies,” said Berry, who is a graduate of the Air Force academy. “We average about one cadet a year who goes to an academy.”

But some members see the CAP as a practical alternative to other outdoor programs.

“For instance, a lot of folks enjoy Boy Scouting, and that’s a great program,” said Berry. “We are like the Scouts, but with a real-world mission. We learn how to stay out in the woods overnight because that’s where the lost airplane might be. They do orienteering; we do search functions. We train people to find that crash and possibly save a person’s life. It’s a youth program with a real-world mission tied to the Air Force.”

Like Berry, many of the group’s former cadets have continued to be active in the organization. “We’re also really blessed that many have come back to help others learn.”