By Staff Sgt. Patrick Brown, 45th SW Public Affairs

CAPE CANAVERAL AFS, Fla. — Since its official congressional charter one week before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the all-volunteer Civil Air Patrol has been providing a myriad of wartime and peacetime missions for America.

However, the 15 members who make up the 45th SW’s CAP only had one mission in the critical days before NASA’s Return to Flight — to help protect America’s return to manned space flight, and in a sense, America’s pride.

Providing surveillance for the last shuttle mission was the CAP’s first surveillance mission for NASA here. Since that time, they have been using small three-seater Cessna airplanes, powerful zoom cameras, night vision equipment and other highly advanced surveillance equipment to spot and report any suspicious activity they may see for nearly every launch made from the Cape.

“Basically, we’re just looking for anything out of the ordinary,” said CAP Maj. John, McWhorter. “Usually it’s a fisherman who gets too close with his boat, or a contractor who gets lost and ends up in the wrong spot, but we still report anything we see,” he said.

Major McWhorter recalled one of his more memorable incidents two years ago when a small bi-plane breached Cape Canaveral air space and started practicing air-acrobatics.

“We didn’t think he was really a threat because he was only two or three miles inside Cape air space, but there was still plenty of security right there with him when he landed,” he said. There was no intent for harm from the pilot, he added. It was just a pilot who had gotten a little off course.

When the CAP spots an unusual situation, it’s photographed by its high-resolution slow-scan cameras and sent electronically from the plane nearly instantly, complete with precise map coordinates, to CAP headquarters in Hangar 313; then sent to the appropriate security agency — usually Space Gateway Systems.

Maj. Stephen Hunter, 45th Operations Support Squadron weapons and tactics flight commander, said CAP’s vigilance is key to keeping the Cape mission safe.

“Before someone can attack something, they have to study it. [The CAP is] there to stop that, and they’re very good at it,” he said.

Since beginning its surveillance patrols, the CAP has reported no major security breaches, and that’s no coincidence according to Major Hunter.

“I can’t tell how many security breaches they’ve prevented just by being there,” he said. “There’s no way to put any numbers on what they’ve done for us. I can tell you that, because [the CAP] are out there, I know there’s no one out there planning to harm the mission.”

Major McWhorter agrees their mere presence is probably one of the biggest deterrents to those who plan harm against the space mission.

“We’re a show of force,” he said. “They see us up there and they know we’re watching.

“If Civil Air Patrol wasn’t there, there would be no reassurance that there’s nobody out there planning harm,” he said. “It’s one less thing the commander and everyone else has to worry about on launch day.”