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Testing homeland security
on a beer budget
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[FEB. 22, 2004]  Last week I witnessed an unusual event. By luck of the draw, I was involved in a test flight for technology designed to upgrade our homeland security and emergency services that has great potential for Americans if it is utilized. It could actually dramatically cut the costs of homeland security, provide early warning -- and real-time information -- to decision-makers to act on. Seeing it in operation amazed me.

When I'm not trying to make a living in a tight economy with everyone else, I am a volunteer pilot for the Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. It's better known for chasing off unfriendly German subs sinking our ships in World War II and for doing 85 percent of the search-and-rescue in the United States since then (saving thousands over the years), but it also performs emergency services. None of us get paid, but all of us who join are screened by the FBI before we can become a member of CAP.

Late Tuesday I got a call from my squadron commander. He said that my name was on the standby aircrew on the next day (which means you need to be ready to fly if an emergency comes up on that day). It wasn't an emergency, but the feds and state were conducting some big test and our aircrew would make the first test run. He said I needed to cancel my plans and arrive on Wednesday (Feb. 18) for a briefing. I did.

Our assignment was to fly two aircraft -- one equipped with a camera to shoot videos of potential hurricane evaluation routes, nuclear event, etc. The second plane would circle high as a retransmission platform, relaying both images and communications from the photo plane to an Emergency Operations Center, located in Austin. It was a first-ever multi-state, multi-agency coordinated test of new technology, and our job was to prove it worked before the governor showed up for the ribbon-cutting photo op the next day.

It was a clear blue day, perfect for a test. One aspect of its use that got my attention was the photo of an oil fire burning madly in the middle of nowhere, turning the blue skies into a nasty white haze. The photo plane relayed back GPS coordinates so that state, federal or local authorities would know immediately of the problem -- and where it is located.

As a terrorism analyst I saw its potential and requested that our missions should be updated and our planes should be equipped with modern nuclear radiation detection equipment -- so that if a suitcase nuke or a mini-nuke gets loose within our borders, we have a quick way of detecting it.


[to top of second column in this commentary]

In one test in the Northeast recently, one of our squadrons was challenged to find a radiation device hidden in a truck somewhere in hundreds of square miles. It launched a plane with a detector onboard
-- and pinpointed a radiation source from a moving truck within 15 minutes of taking off. Imagine the difference of detecting one of these before it can be detonated instead of waiting for the aftermath.

But right now no Civil Air Patrol plane has this equipment. Every one should. Nuclear terrorism is a real possibility, and it would make the anthrax and ricin attacks minor events. We also need the faster satellite video equipment. With the "SLOW Scan" technology we tested, it took three minutes to transmit one photo -- and the planes had to fly parallel courses during those three minutes or lose the transmission. The satellite system is on only one test plane. It works at the speed of the Internet, which we use via satellite hookup in the air.

The biggest advantage of our aircraft and crew is cost. The pilots are all volunteers (we get no pay, and I had to reschedule meeting a potential new client to make this flight), and to operate a Cessna 172 or 182 costs under $80 an hour -- versus $500 per hour to operate turbine helicopters and $4,000 per hour for military aircraft to do the same job. In a time of a half-trillion budget deficit, saving costs should be a top priority. CAP has the nation's largest air fleet -- nearly 500 aircraft, if I recall correctly.

A couple photos on that day can be found at an online journal I wrote on that date:

[Michael Fjetland,,
The Global American series]

Reprints allowed with author credit and website reference.

Michael Fjetland (pronounced "Fetland") is an international negotiator who has been in over 55 countries over a quarter century, is a volunteer pilot with the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary and is a TV terrorism analyst in Houston. People interested can sign up for the Global American column at the above website.

He is also a candidate for Congress in 2004. [www.FFFE.US]

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