By Erika Webb
Time in the U.S. Air Force and a science project led Lt. Col. Charles Pirnat, Ph.D., to his place in what is now the DeLand Flight of the Seminole Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol.
At an open house June 1 at the DeLand airport, the mission was to raise awareness and recruit cadets and senior members.
"One of our biggest headaches is that the Civil Air Patrol is one of the best kept secrets in the world and we don't want it to be," Lt. Col. Pirnat said.
The open house featured airplane static displays and information on the patrol's three primary missions: Emergency Services -- Search and Rescue and Disaster Relief; Cadet Programs; and Aerospace Education.
Also on display were teacher materials to reinforce STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- for students in kindergarten through high school.
"The National Defense Education Program, as managed by the Air Force STEM Outreach Coordination Office at the Pentagon, is partnering with CAP, CAP-USAF, and AFJROTC to provide financial support to promote increased STEM education for America's youth in the 21st century," according to www.capmembers.com.
"The conduit for that is the creation of the CAP STEM Kit Program for CAP Unit Aerospace Education Officers, CAP Educator Members, and AFJROTC Instructors nationwide," the website reported.
The Civil Air Patrol was founded by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1941, a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In the late 1930s, more than 150,000 volunteers with a love for aviation argued for an organization to put their planes and flying skills to use in defense of their country, according to www.gocivilairpatrol.com.
"Thousands of volunteer members answered America's call to national service and sacrifice by accepting and performing critical wartime missions," the website reported.
Assigned to the War Department under the jurisdiction of the Army Air Corps, the contributions of Civil Air Patrol included logging more than 500,000 flying hours, sinking two enemy submarines and saving hundreds of crash victims in World War II.
"All during the war we did homeland security, observation of submarines off the coast and ferrying military aircraft from where they were manufactured to the base," Lt. Col. Pirnat said. "It was probably the first time in history that women flew in military aircraft."
A year after the U.S. Air Force was established as a separate department, CAP was commissioned as the official auxiliary.
CAP's cadet program uses aviation as a motivator and a cornerstone.
"The cadet program is for ladies and gentlemen ages 12 through high school," Lt. Col. Pirnat said. "It's a good way for younger people to find out if they like military customs and courtesies and wear of the uniform."
Thousands of young people from 12 years through age 21 are introduced to aviation through the program, which allows them to progress at their own pace through a 16-step regimen including aerospace education, leadership training, physical fitness and moral leadership, according to the website.
"Cadets compete for academic scholarships to further their studies in fields such as engineering, science, aircraft mechanics, aerospace medicine, meteorology as well as many others. Those cadets who earn cadet officer status may enter the Air Force as an E3 -- airman first class -- rather than an E1-- airman basic," the website stated.
Lt. Col. Pirnat must have been a quick study in taking orders. He served in the Air Force from 1959 to 1963. During the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, he was hospitalized for hernia surgery. When he was released, he returned to an empty barracks. His comrades were busy loading aircraft as "the world waited."
He tried to explain to the squadron First Sergeant that he'd just been released from the hospital, but without a note excusing him from physical duties he was ordered to load aircraft, too.
"So I went down to the line and I loaded aircraft," Lt. Col. Pirnat said. "Then I went to the hospital, got a note and answered phones for three months."
Lt. Col. Pirnat said the CAP Character Building program is designed to instill values such as responsibility, respect and self-discipline.
"I think parents feel (CAP) is a character building experience because (cadets) learn discipline, they learn how to follow as well as lead. They start out as followers and wind up being leaders if they go through the whole program," he explained.
He said cadets learn to respect themselves and others.
"The hard thing is self-discipline," Lt. Col. Pirnat said. "They're responsible for learning the things they need to know for military customs and courtesies as well as aerospace education."
And they'll get a workout.
"We have a physical fitness portion of the program, to progress from one rank to the next. As they achieve these goals, they move up through the ranks," he said.
Lt. Col. Pirnat has been with CAP since 1985 when his son's science fair project -- aviation, naturally -- progressed to the county level and won an award from the Experimental Aircraft Association.
"A person from the EAA was the squadron commander of the local CAP unit and he invited us to a fly-in lunch at Bob Lee Airport. That's how we became involved," he said.
Lt. Col. Pirnat has a bachelor's and master's degree as well as a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He is a certified flight instructor, and taught flying and aircraft maintenance at the University of Illinois. He was Dean of the College of Aviation Technology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the late 1970s before going on to build lasers in Orlando for 18 years.
"Civil Air Patrol is an opportunity for someone to be of service and learn skills that are useful in building our community," he said.