Eli Moon was in seventh grade the first time he flew.
He’d been fascinated by aerospace and plane mechanics for years, and had learned as much as he could through online research. So when Eli’s brother decided to check out the Steamboat squadron of Civil Air Patrol, Eli tagged along. Months later, Eli had received his cadet uniform and was buckled into the cockpit of the Cessna 182 for his first orientation flight. The senior pilot took off, then, at 1,000 feet above the Yampa Valley, handed the controls over to Eli.
“I knew so much about (flying), but actually being able to do it first-hand really fulfilled all of that,” Eli said. “It was an awe-inspiring experience.”
Now a junior at Steamboat Springs High School, Eli continues to work toward his pilot’s license and serves as the squadron’s cadet commander, leading presentations for fellow cadets about flying, emergency service, aerospace, and leadership. He’s learned about teamwork, time and resource management, problem-solving and focus, and practiced it all alongside his crew.
“(Flying) is now what I want to do with my life, because I fell in love with it,” Eli said.
He plans to attend pilot training at the Air Force or Naval Academy, and would like to pursue a career flying jets, cargo, or even commercial planes.
“Anything to get me up there,” he said.
Eli’s experience with CAP is one among thousands spanning eight decades. The Civil Air Patrol was launched in 1941, merging several organizations that, in the years leading to World War II, mobilized U.S. civilian aviators in volunteering for national defense. The next year, the CAP Cadet Program was created, in which teenagers learned skills to assist in war efforts.
In 1948, President Harry Truman established CAP as the Air Force’s civilian auxiliary, setting the stage for a broader variety of programs, including an International Air Cadet Exchange and aerospace education. Throughout the Cold War, CAP evolved to include search and rescue missions, aerial radiological monitoring, and optical satellite tracking.
Squadrons across the nation delivered supplies to the Air Force and organ transplant material for the American Red Cross. Squadrons participated in disaster relief after the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills; Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Floyd; the Oklahoma City bombing; and 9/11. Since 2020, squads have delivered COVID-19 tests and vaccines to rural, hard-to-access communities.
The Steamboat squadron was founded in the mid-1990s. At first, it often went on search and rescue missions for lost adventurers and missing aircrafts. Today, the squad still runs drills with Routt County Search and Rescue and is available to assist with S&R missions, but with the omnipresence of GPS-equipped cell phones and the robustness of the county S&R team, local CAP efforts are most useful in other areas.
“Our mission is changing: we’re doing a lot more disaster relief now,” said Capt. Tim Walsh, Steamboat Springs Composite Squadron Commander.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the squad flew medical supplies from Denver to Craig; it’s done aerial imaging over Houston after a hurricane and over Fort Collins after flooding. Recently, it flew to Kansas to participate in an intercept exercise — a.k.a. target practice — with a swarm of Air Force F16s.
The squad is also involved in more playful forms of service: it helps out at the local Wild West Air Fest, in which aircraft perform aerobatics and formation flying drills, and the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo. Cadets also presented the colors at a Rockies game during Summer 2021.
Cadets prepare for this work by attending Tuesday-evening meetings, which feature physical fitness, aerospace education, leadership, and character development taught by Christel Houston, who was awarded the 2020 CAP National Character Development Instructor of the Year. Cadets also do one weekend activity per month, and can attend summer academies and encampments to dive further into their interests.
This summer, Eli Moon will be attending a week-and-a-half-long flight camp, paid for by a full scholarship.
“I’ll be getting a lot closer to being a licensed pilot,” he said.
Walsh was already a pilot when he got involved with CAP as a senior member six years ago. Since then, he’s seen more than 60 cadets graduate through the program.
“It’s so fun to watch them grow up and see them be people who can not only be responsible for themselves, but also value the community,” Walsh said. “They really set themselves up to be outstanding citizens.”
While some cadets go onto military careers, plenty also pursue civilian routes, often in aerospace and engineering. Walsh speaks both as the squadron commander and as the proud father of two sons who went through the cadet program and are now studying engineering. One is also involved in ROTC.
The Steamboat squadron currently has 15 cadets ages 12 to 18, plus 12 senior (adult) members, and the program would like to grow both rosters. There will be an open house for anyone interested at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 29, at Steamboat Springs Airport / Bob Adams Field.
“If you have any interest in aerospace, or in being a better leader, or in being a better person, it’s something I’d definitely suggest trying out,” Eli said.
No prior training is required for most CAP roles, but pilots interested in getting involved are also enthusiastically welcomed. Participants must be U.S. citizens and pass an FBI background check. Participation is on a volunteer basis.
“Anyone who’s interested is welcome — there’s a place for you,” Walsh said.
For more information, go to Steamboat.Cap.gov/.