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Where sirens fail, CAP pilots fly in

Volunteers took to the air over parts of Oahu to warn of the tsunami

By Gregg K. Kakesako

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:12 a.m. HST, Oct 30, 2012


Hawaii Civil Air Patrol tsunami warning aircraft paid special attention to Kaa­awa and Kahana Bay late Saturday night because Civil Defense officials had told them the sirens in those areas were malfunctioning.

Using sirens attached to their aircraft, Civil Air Patrol pilots went aloft to warn residents of the tsunami generated by a 7.7-magnitude earthquake off British Columbia that was expected to hit Hawaii at 10:30 p.m.

Tony Ferrara, CAP director of operations, said state Civil Defense called on CAP volunteers just before 8:30 p.m. Saturday to perform the tsunami warning mission like others it has done for the past 55 years.

Within minutes eight CAP small-engine Cessnas were airborne — three at Kauai, three at Oahu, one at Maui and one at Hawaii island. The flights were completed by 11:30 p.m., but the aircraft were kept fueled and on standby until 1 a.m. Sunday in case they were needed for damage assessment.

Ferrara said the alert time Saturday was a lot shorter than March 2011 after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck Japan.

"Then we had a seven- to eight-hour warning," Ferrara said. "But our people responded as they were trained to do. Everything went off smoothly."

Lt. Col. Robert "Bob" Becka, commander of CAP's Hono­lulu flight, flew to Koko Head on Saturday night and later was diverted to the Wai­anae Coast because of cloudy conditions.

"Fortunately, there wasn't much traffic on the road, and I could see where the police were working," Becka said.

Becka said volunteer CAP pilots turn on their sirens whenever they see lights on the beach.

"It's done intermittently," said Becka, whose flight path Saturday covered the Wai­anae Coast to Kahuku.

CAP pilots on Maui did extra flybys around the Lahaina area because of the possibility that people on the beaches hadn't heard earlier warnings.

Niihau residents were notified by Civil Air Patrol flights and the Robinson family.

The CAP's tsunami warning mission began 55 years ago.

A Hanalei Civil Air Patrol cadet squadron was about to hold its weekly meeting on Kauai on March 11, 1957, when it received a radio message from its headquarters in Hono­lulu that a massive earthquake off Alaska had triggered a tsunami that was expected to hit Hawaii within an hour.

The cadets, under the leadership of a lieutenant, Kai Davis, jumped into their jeeps, which were equipped with sirens, and drove through Hana­lei Valley and Haena sounding the alarm. Going door to door, the CAP cadets are credited with alerting 300 to 400 Kauai residents, who took refuge at the Hana­lei lookout.

At least one wave reached 32 feet above normal sea level at Haena, causing enormous damage along a 15-mile strip of Hana­lei. Kauai's North Shore sustained an estimated $2 million in damage.

LAST year, at 10:01 p.m. on March 10, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach and Hawaii Civil Defense issued a tsunami alert. CAP planes began sounding the tsunami warning at 10:18 p.m.

Waves generated by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake near the east coast of Honshu, Japan, were expected to hit Kauai at 3:07 a.m. March 11 and Oahu seven minutes later.

"It was a moonless Friday night," recalled Becka, who climbed into the cockpit of a Cessna 182 just before midnight March 10. "Everything was pitch black."

Even before the alert was issued by the Hawaii Civil Defense emergency operating center in Diamond Head crater, the Hawaii Wing of the Civil Air Patrol had launched Becka and pilots in seven other small Cessnas to broadcast aerial warnings to low-lying inundation areas where there would be a danger to residents, swimmers, surfers and campers, many in areas where there are no emergency sirens.

HAWAII CIVIL AIR PATROL

>> Membership: 1,382, all volunteers
>> Established:
1947
>> Aircraft:
Eight single-engine Cessna 182s and two single-engine Cessna 172s at CAP hangars off Lagoon Drive, one glider at Dillingham Airfield
>> Mission:
Aerospace education, cadet program, emergency services
>> Emergency missions:
11 in 2011, five so far in 2012
>> Tsunami training missions:
One per month

Source: Hawaii Civil Air Patrol

"Timing is essential," said Becka, who recalled seeing the campfires of people on the beach and issuing warnings to ships offshore.

Telephone and cellphone service can easily become overloaded and ineffective, said Becka, a U.S. Postal Service area maintenance specialist who has a part-time job as a flight instructor.

The March 2011 and Saturday's missions were unusual because the CAP wing normally does not conduct night operations.

Each of the CAP aircraft has a speaker system attached to the lower portion of the plane's fuselage to warn people to go to higher ground.

The airborne sirens are necessary, said veteran CAP pilot John Gleeson, a former World War II B-24 bomber pilot, to ensure everyone gets the warning.

"Civil defense sirens have been known to fail," said Gleeson, 89, "and some remote areas aren't covered by the sirens."

On Saturday morning, Feb. 27, 2010, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center notified the Hawaii State Civil Defense of a tsunami generated by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Chile. Hawaii State Civil Defense immediately alerted the Civil Air Patrol.

Eight Civil Air Patrol aircraft were sent aloft — two on Kauai, two on Hawaii island, two on Maui and two on Oahu. The planes began sounding the tsunami warning at 6 a.m., five hours before the tsunami was supposed to hit. CAP aircrews reported campers shining their flashlights and breaking down their campsites after receiving the warnings.

During a recent one-hour orientation flight from CAP's hangers on Lagoon Drive, Becka and Gleeson, a CAP volunteer since 1980, followed the flight path over Oahu's South Shore from Waikiki Beach, around Diamond Head, Hawaii Kai, Maka­puu, Wai­ma­nalo, Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay, Puna­luu, Kahuku, Wai­mea Bay and Hale­iwa. The CAP conducts monthly tsunami warning training missions.

During the orientation flight, Becka, who joined the CAP in 1993 in Florida, flew the red, white and blue four-seater Cessna 182T at 1,000 feet for safety reasons.

However, during an airborne warning mission a CAP pilot may drop to as low as 500 feet to get the attention of beachgoers, campers and even boaters at sea.

"Boaters may be unaware that a tsunami warning has been issued," said Becka, one of CAP's 1,382 volunteers. Flights are generally kept to within two miles of shore.

CAP flight crews also will perform search, damage assessment and photo flights. CAP volunteers fly aerial missions, staff the incident command center and maintain and operate the radio communications net and aircraft.

In July 2002, CAP volunteers were instrumental in locating a small plane that went down on Maui. And in February 2004 the Hawaii Civil Air Patrol located a missing air ambulance that had crashed near Hilo.

The Hawaii wing, which is one of 52 in the country, maintains 11 aircraft — eight single-engine Cessna 182s and two single-engine Cessna 172s, and one glider at Dillingham Airfield. All members of the CAP are volunteers, and the organization is funded annually by a nearly $100,000 grant from the state.

Besides responding to emergency rescue calls, the CAP also works with the Hawaii Air National Guard's 199th Fighter Squadron in air-intercept missions during which its planes act as hostile aircraft. CAP planes also perform similar missions to test Navy warships' ability to track and destroy low-flying hostile aircraft.

The Civil Air Patrol was created in December 1941, one week before the Japa­nese attack on Pearl Harbor, by more than 150,000 people concerned about defense of America's coastline. The Hawaii CAP Wing was established on Jan. 22, 1947.

President Harry Truman designated it in 1945 as a federally chartered civilian corporation. Two years later Congress charged the CAP with aerospace education, cadet programs and emergency services as its three primary missions.

In October 2000 Congress passed legislation making it a volunteer civilian auxillary of the Air Force.






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