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Keeping the CAP Fleet Fit

How Civil Air Patrol Maintains Their Planes

By Paul Cianciolo, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine

More than 92,000 flight hours a year may seem like a daunting number, but that is the norm for Civil Air Patrol’s (CAP) auxiliary airmen missions. Flying for the U.S. Air Force, states, and local communities puts quite a toll on CAP’s fleet of small aircraft. Maintaining that fleet in peak condition is essential to mission readiness.

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Elephant Walk

Let’s first look at CAP’s aircraft fleet by the numbers. With few exceptions, CAP owns and operates one of the world’s largest fleets of piston-engine airplanes.

The low and slow high-wing platform is the top choice for search and rescue, route surveys, tracks of interest for air-intercept training, radio communication relays, short-range transport, aerial photography for damage assessments, and aviation training. CAP’s fleet includes 190 Cessna 172 Skyhawks, 300 Cessna 182 Skylanes (including 14 turbos), three Cessna 185F Skywagons, 39 Cessna 206 Stationairs (including 26 turbos), 16 GippsAero GA8 Airvans, and three Maules. The fleet also includes two hot air balloons named Integrity and Imagination, 54 gliders, 938 FAA-registered drones for operational missions, and 1,391 FAA-registered drones for STEM education.

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That’s a lot of aircraft to maintain! Keeping 551 single-engine piston airplanes on the line and ready for flight is centrally managed by a small team of employees at CAP’s National Headquarters and aircraft maintenance officer (AMO) volunteers around the country.

Photo of airplanes.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Aviation Academy

Above and Beyond

Each AMO is the single point of contact for all maintenance performed on the aircraft within CAP’s 52 wings — one for each state, one for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and one for the D.C. metro area. They coordinate all aircraft maintenance, inspections, and repairs, and they ensure all aircraft meet FAA standards under 14 CFR parts 43, 45, and 91. AMOs are not required to be qualified as FAA-certificated aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs). Still, AMOs are fully trained within three months of taking on that volunteer duty assignment.

One of an AMO’s tools is an enhanced aircraft inspection checklist — CAP Form 71.

“The checklist is used to evaluate the overall condition of the airplane, verify the configuration, and to ensure compliance with both FAA and CAP regulations,” explains Gary Schneider, CAP’s director of logistics and mission resources. “It’s only required once a year, but many of our AMOs like to use it each and every time an aircraft goes in for its 100-hour inspection.”

Using a checklist is always a good idea. There are above and beyond items worth noting to keep the fleet better than good.

Aircraft assigned to Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico wings require the application of a corrosion preventive compound at least annually. Others must apply it every two years. Also, any aircraft that flies 200 feet above ground level (AGL) over a body of saltwater or dry salt beds must be rinsed with clear water after each flight. When was the last time you washed your airplane? Learn more about corrosion control for aircraft in Advisory Circular (AC) 43–4B.

Another preventative measure is against the silent killer, carbon monoxide (CO). According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), it has killed 42 people in aircraft accidents since 1982. That’s why CAP requires a disposable CO detector in every powered aircraft, even if that aircraft is equipped with an electronic sensor. These are replaced every January or when one becomes unserviceable. Learn more about preventing CO poisoning at go.usa.gov/xtjAF.

The checklist also requires that specific placards always be visible to the pilot. One important one is “Remove Towbar Before Engine Start.” Yes, it happens. Preventing damage beforehand is always a good thing.

Another requirement for CAP pilots is to check the aircraft tire pressure before the day’s first flight. Being proactive with this small step can prevent a potential tire blowout. CAP pilots are also required to either use a CAP-approved checklist or the manufacturer’s checklist. Additional checklist items for preflight, enroute, and postflight are provided through operational standards.

These are just some proactive measures taken to safeguard and protect the aircraft.

Civil Air Patrol photo by Col. Jane Davies

Monitor and Verify

When maintenance issues happen — and they will — CAP requires all pilots to document, track, and report aircraft discrepancies using a web-based system that automatically notifies an AMO for validation. Differences are expected to be reported as soon as possible but no more than eight hours after being found. The AMO ensures that the entry accurately reflects the actual condition of the aircraft. If the cause cannot be determined and the aircraft is unsafe to fly, it is grounded until an airworthiness determination can be made by a certificated AMT.

All deferred maintenance items must meet the requirements of 14 CFR section 91.213(d) and be properly disabled or removed, and placarded. If a deferred item limits the ability of the aircraft to operate in a given condition, then the appropriate “limitation status” is selected in the online reporting system.

“Our AMRAD [Aircraft Maintenance Repair and Documentation] system is a valuable tool. It allows our members and headquarters staff to monitor inspections, engine and prop overhauls, the accomplishment of Airworthiness Directives (ADs), and the overall status and condition of an aircraft,” Schneider states. “Before AMRAD, it would be possible for a pilot to land an aircraft with a grounding discrepancy that could go unreported, and then the next pilot could fly an aircraft that was not airworthy and safe. A pilot could land an aircraft when a CO detector alerted to carbon monoxide in the cockpit, but neglect to placard the plane or notify maintenance before the next pilot unknowingly takes off with a potential CO hazard in waiting,” he explains.

“A pilot can now enter a discrepancy in AMRAD from their cell or tablet, which notifies the AMO and signifies to a future crew that a plane is grounded. Like so many systems, the weak point is the human,” continues Schneider. “If the pilot fails to document a grounding condition, it could still result in failure to notify the appropriate people. We have reduced the likelihood of that possibility.”

Photo courtesy of Civil Air Patrol

Pilots must also receive a flight release from an appointed flight release officer (FRO) before any flight. The FRO ensures that the pilot thoroughly considers items like intended sortie parameters, weather, crew condition, and airworthiness. Both the pilot and the FRO have access to AMRAD to check for any known maintenance discrepancies as part of the preflight check.

Only the Best

CAP maintains a centralized maintenance program for all scheduled work and as much non-scheduled work as reasonably possible to provide the safest and most reliable aircraft to meet all mission requirements. CAP contracts with 80 aircraft repair shops around the country to ensure a consistent quality of work. A competitive process is used to evaluate different shops, including talking with local CAP pilots in the area.

“I ask if this is a shop that they would take their personal plane to,” explains Schneider. “After we select the best shop, we consult with the wing to make sure they also agree with the choice.”

Photo of airplane.
Civil Air Patrol photo by Col. Jane Davies

CAP’s consolidated program results in aircraft that are safer, airworthy, mission-ready, and better looking than before.

“Perhaps the best metric to show an improvement over the past is financial,” Schneider notes. “Before consolidated maintenance, we used to pass appropriated funds out to the wings simply, and the money would be gone months before the end of the fiscal year. Now we stay within budget and can also perform refurbishment and avionics upgrades.”

CAP aircraft are purchased and maintained through appropriated funds, which further safeguards federal dollars from misuse.

Civil Air Patrol auxiliary airmen take pride in their aircraft and maintain them to a high standard. Their volunteers serve our communities every day, saving lives and shaping futures.

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Paul Cianciolo is an associate editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran and an auxiliary airman with Civil Air Patrol.
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This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. https://www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing/
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FAA Safety Briefing

FAA Safety Briefing

Official FAA safety policy voice for general aviation. Part of the national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam).