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The UK Civil Air Patrol is entirely voluntary with pilots and observers providing their time and their aircraft free of charge. Although it is not yet recognized as an emergency service it is available to the emergency services to provide an air search capability when other air assets, military and police, are not available.

The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is also available to the local government civil contingencies unit, the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to assist in the response to natural disasters such as significant flooding.

The key to success is to have aircraft well distributed around the country flown by experienced personnel who regularly fly together as constituted crews and who consequently develop high standards of crew cooperation. Widely distributed assets ensures shorter transit times and therefore faster response. Crews are also more likely to be operating in familiar airspace and over familiar terrain. Aircraft best suited for observation and aerial photography tend to be of high wing configuration but other types are also very useful depending on the role. Different configurations can be matched to appropriate sorties and there is a place for everything in the CAP from multi-seat aircraft to autogyros, light helicopters and even microlights

All CAP aircraft, apart from unmanned aircraft, are operated in the private category and the majority of pilots have a private licence although some have higher qualifications. Many CAP pilots are ex-military or commercial with very high levels of experience. The minimum level of experience for joining the CAP as a pilot is a valid pilot’s licence and a minimum of 200 flying hours - although the final decision must rest with the Area Chief Pilot.

Depending on availability the air observation service is provided from dawn until dusk under what are termed visual flight rules.

The Organisation is headed by a Board of Trustees. Each one of the 3 regions that make up the UKCAP is supervised by a Regional Coordinator and these Regional Coordinators are all trustees. Details of the current trustees can be found here. The Scottish and Northern Ireland regions comprise a single body whilst England and Wales is subdivided into 5 smaller Areas, each with an experienced Area Chief Pilot who reports directly to the E&W Regional Coordinator. Each Region has its own Ops Manual to account for differences, usually minor, in the governance and specific requirements of operations within that Region. However, policy, supervision and administration are common to the UK organisation as a whole.

All manned CAP aircraft are operated within the ‘private category’ which means that all flights are private and entirely voluntary. Sky Watch cannot, therefore, be held under contract; neither can it receive payment nor can it operate under any form of ‘mutuality of obligation’ with another party. Many CAP crew members are ex-military, ex-police or are high time civilian aircraft operators. Some CAP pilots have less experience but all pilots are matched to appropriate missions by an effective supervision system involving direct input from the executives. The final decision to respond to a request for specific airborne assistance always rests with the individual pilot in command. Whilst the CAP has a number of dedicated observers, most crews comprise two pilots (with the second pilot acting as observer) - with the inherent safety benefit. Pilots and observers are encouraged to fly as ‘constituted crews’ so that they become thoroughly familiar with their aircraft and achieve a high level of crew cooperation. All CAP operations fall well within the privileges of the UK private pilot licence and within the limits of the UK Air Navigation Order as it relates to private flying. No alleviations from these rules are granted and none are required. CAP flying is not only highly supervised but it is usually very straightforward and planned to involve relatively low work rates. Skills that new crew members must acquire relate to developing familiarity with certain items of equipment and with developing high levels of crew cooperation rather than pure handling skills. Generally, the flying skills taught within the private pilot licence syllabus are sufficient. Regions are encouraged to form their own operations cells to prepare, monitor and collect data from all missions. CAP sorties will routinely be notified to the UK Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre and details are also passed, if appropriate, to the RAF Low Flying Cell, local police control rooms, local air traffic control units and even local flying clubs. Every effort is made by regional ops cells to coordinate CAP operations with all other airspace users. Written crew reports from every sortie are combined with feedback from user agencies to develop Standard Operating Procedures and to maintain CAP Safety & Quality Management systems.

As an independent organization the Civil Air Patrol cannot be placed under the control of any other organization. Overall policy and direction is provided by the Board of Trustees with area chief pilots (ACP) providing a point of contact and administration at the local level. The ACP will also provide training opportunities for his members and mentor both the pilots and the observers. Nevertheless, the final decision to embark on a simple air observation flight or, if qualified, to respond to a request for specific airborne assistance rests with the individual pilot. Once authorised by the ACP the pilot must decide if his aircraft is serviceable, if the weather is within limits for his aircraft and his personal skills and if he or she is, in all respects, fit to fly. Although the CAP cannot be tasked by other agencies such as the police and Her Majesty's Coastguard we do look to these agencies for coordination so that, where possible, the aircraft is in the right place at the right time and, more importantly, there is no conflict with any other aircraft taking part in the same operation. In the UK the responsibility for search and rescue (SAR) action for civilians overland rests with the police although they often rely on the mountain and lowland rescue services, also volunteers, to provide trained personnel. 

The vast majority of CAP aircraft are dual crewed and fitted with dual controls. Most are simple 2-seat types possessing good performance, safe handling, adequate cruising speed of around 100mph and an endurance of several hours. These aircraft can operate safely out of small and basic airstrips and can deploy relatively long distances whilst still achieving useful periods of time on any task. Many CAP aircraft are of high wing configuration making them ideal for ground observation and photography. The CAP fleet also includes a number of higher capacity aircraft, helicopters and an increasing number of Autogyros that offer the slow flight capability of helicopters but at a much lower operating cost. In the UK the CAP has regular availability to around 80 aircraft.

Registered as a charity in England & Wales (1113079) and Scotland (SC 042026)