Civil Air Patrol grounded

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The Colorado wing of the Civil Air Patrol has been grounded since last week, but officials say the suspension is not likely to harm Routt County's ability to respond to emergencies.

"We're not overly concerned," said Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale.

In the case of an emergency, "We would operate just fine. It just might slow us down a little."

The Civil Air Patrol handles 95 percent of air search and rescue operations in the country, said Air Force Lt. Col. Jack Dysart.

Dysart is also commander of the Steamboat Springs Composite Squadron, the part of Civil Air Patrol that serves Northwest Colorado.

Pilots volunteer to be a part of the patrol, and as volunteers, become members of the Air Force Auxiliary.

The Colorado wing of the patrol was grounded because of a late cancellation of a mission, suspension of training through February 2004 and a lack of trained personnel in important leadership positions, according to a letter from patrol national headquarters dated Dec. 11.

In Steamboat, there are five pilots qualified to conduct mountain search missions and several more in training.

Typically, if a plane crashed in the area or if a search for a lost hiker required air support, local patrol pilots would respond. The response services would be paid for with federal funds and not charged back to local entities.

Since Colorado flight activities were suspended, patrol pilots from Utah and Wyoming likely will be called to assist with air searches.

Colorado patrol members will be able to participate as ground crew, nonpilot aircrew or mission base support for the out-of-state aircraft.

There also are local helicopter and fixed-wing pilots who are willing to go aloft to assess emergencies, Vale said.

The Civil Air Patrol has participated in several of the county's recent emergencies, such as the plane crash on Rabbit Ears Pass a year ago in which three people and three dogs survived. One person died in the crash.

Dysart said it's not known how long the Colorado Civil Air Patrol will be grounded, but said he expects that the situation could persist until late January.

"We'll all be relieved to go back to normal operations," he said.

Until then, he agreed with Vale that the grounding shouldn't make too much of a difference.

"The main difference is it might take an hour longer to respond because the airplane may come from farther away," Dysart said.

There are 530 small planes used by the patrol nationwide, 14 of which are used in Colorado, Dysart said.

Each year, between 15 and 20 percent of the search hours nationwide are spent in Colorado. The high percentage of searches that take place in Colorado is because of the area's mountainous terrain that makes it a more dangerous place for pilots, especially those who are not familiar with the area, Dysart said.

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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