Monday, February 19, 2018

Gregg County Civil Air Patrol celebrates awards, squadron growth

Megan Hix

By Megan Hix
Feb. 8, 2018 at 12:06 a.m.

Above: State Sen. Bryan Hughes, right, congratulates  James Watts as he presents him with the Gen.  Billy Mitchell Award during a promotions and awards ceremony Tuesday at the Civil Air Patrol Gregg County Composite Squadron's hangar at the East Texas Regional Airport. Watts was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and assumed command of the cadet squadron. Below: First Lt. Nick Smith displays an award presented to the squadron during the ceremony Tuesday.

Five years ago, Nick Smith and two of his siblings made up about half of the cadet program of the Gregg County Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol.

Smith, 17, now a first lieutenant in the squadron, said since then he's seen the group steadily grow, culminating Tuesday as about 20 cadets stood in formation in a hangar at the East Texas Regional Airport to watch as eight of their peers were promoted.

Gregg County's squadron has grown in numbers and stature the past few years, including winning awards, assisting in hangar renovations and getting more involved in the aviation community.

The group recently won the Civil Air Patrol's Quality Cadet Unit Award, and one of its cadets, 2nd Lt. James Watts, received the Gen. Billy Mitchell Award, a recognition given to cadets who reach the officer ranks.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, presented Watts with the award Tuesday, which is given to about 10 percent of cadets nationally. Watts said the recognition required him to test his leadership abilities, aerospace knowledge, physical fitness and personal character.

"I set my mind to it and went for it," he said.

Criteria for the Quality Cadet Unit Award include unit enrollment growth, participation in squadron events, cadet retention and promotion and certification in emergency services.

"It was a long effort," said Smith, the only other Mitchell award winner in the group. "(The Quality Cadet Unit Award) was a physical symbol of all the work we've done."

Smith, who also handed over the role of cadet commander Tuesday to Watts, said the unit has actively recruited members at schools and through open houses, flight simulations and more. The extra effort has worked, and the squadron has grown to 24 cadets.

The cadets, who can range in age from 12 to 21, make up one element of the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary, civilian unit of the U.S. Air Force. The squadron also includes senior members, adults who oversee cadet involvement and promote Civil Air Patrol pillars of aerospace education and emergency services.

Smith said he and other cadets assisted in an emergency search after a plane went down near Tyler this past year, but members also can be called on to help look for missing persons, respond to natural disasters and operate radio communications.

Doug Joy of Winona has three sons involved as cadets in the patrol. He said in the seven-plus years he's had at least one child involved in the program, he's seen them develop leadership skills and get involved in Civil Air Patrol activities around the state, including training camps and advisory boards.

"(This group) has been through a lot of changes," Joy said. "They did a lot of recruiting to get more people in and a lot of work beyond their squadron."

Many of the cadets are interested in enlisting in the military, where they often can earn higher ranks immediately after completing training. Joy said even if his children choose not to enlist, the training "is a good tool for your toolbox."

Part of the draw for cadets not interested in military careers is getting to ride in and even fly planes without getting a pilot's license. Several of the cadets earned recognition Tuesday for achieving their first flights as pilots.

Cadets rely on local pilots to take them up and provide flight instruction.

First Lt. Kevin Vietzke is one of those pilots and transferred to the Gregg County squadron from one in Tyler. He said each cadet is limited to five flights in the cockpit, but he's happy to take them up to observe as passengers as often as they want.

"This one is a thriving cadet squadron," Vietzke said of the Gregg County group. "This particular squadron has a large group of cadets with more age differences and male and female members. They really work hard with these cadets here."



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