WASHINGTON – As his watch ticks toward midnight, Paul Gardella checks the oil on the small Cessna 182 parked on a cold, dark airstrip in Fairfax County, Va. He knows what he soon could be facing: Coast Guard helicopters chasing him. F-16s intercepting him. Ground-to-air missiles tracking his every turn.
That’s because Gardella – a software engineer and former military officer – is taking on a new role.
Enemy of the U.S. government.
“In the Navy, I was on the other side. I was on the side of the ones that were shooting,” he muses.
Gardella, 50, is among a group of pilots who pose as nighttime intruders, penetrating restricted airspace over Washington in drills that take place every few weeks. While area residents slumber, the volunteers allow the U.S. military to practice intercepting them – or worse.
The pilots are with the Civil Air Patrol, a national organization with a proud history of service. During World War II, its daredevil pilots chased German U-boats along the U.S. coast. In the ensuing decades, volunteers ran bomb-shelter exercises and helped the Air Force search for crashed planes.
Now the Civil Air Patrol is returning to its homeland-defense roots.
“I understand there has to be practice,” said Gardella, a laid-back father of three from Burke, Va. If bad guys are what Uncle Sam needs, he declared, “I’m happy to help out.”
In the low-slung flight operations center at Fort Belvoir, Gardella and three other pilots met on a recent wintry night to prepare for their mission. Clad in olive flight suits with Civil Air Patrol patches, they sat on couches in a wood-paneled room, studying maps and listening to a flight briefing.
It was Gardella’s first homeland security exercise, but his companions were veteran invaders.
Air Force Col. Keith Zuegel, 47, of Vienna, Va., won a Silver Star in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. After being promoted to a desk job, he joined the Civil Air Patrol to fly in his spare time. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he was asked to take part in military exercises again – this time, as the target.
“I said, ‘Can you assure me I won’t be shot down?’ ” Zuegel laughed.
Kylie McDonald, 35, of Centreville, Va., has been flying the missions for two years. “Now I’m getting a similar opportunity, even though I’m a civilian,” said McDonald, who works for a company that provides aviation services.
Outside the room, in a pressed navy-blue uniform, sat Jane Davies, 52, of Springfield, Va., who joined the Civil Air Patrol in 1969 as a “Star Trek”-obsessed teenager. She is commander of the patrol’s D.C. area branch, or wing, which includes more than 200 adult volunteers and nearly 300 cadets under age 21.
Only a small group of them are allowed to fly the Civil Air Patrol’s red-white-and-blue Cessnas, Davies explained. Other patrol members are trained in activities such as hunting for vanished planes or handing out relief supplies after floods or hurricanes. For decades, the roughly 56,000 members nationwide have helped out the Air Force or local governments with such tasks.
Now they are back doing homeland security – “exactly what we did 65 years ago,” Davies said, referring to the founding of the Civil Air Patrol by aviation enthusiasts at the dawn of World War II.
Nationally, the patrol takes part in a variety of anti-terror activities. Some pilots periodically snap aerial photographs of sensitive sites such as nuclear plants or dams for the government. Sometimes patrol members are asked to fly military officers or government officials over certain areas.
“We’re not necessarily made privy to what they’re looking at,” said Rick Greenhut, head of homeland security for the patrol. “We’re kind of the bus driver.”
Perhaps the most exciting missions, though, are the exercises known as Falcon Virgo, which take place over cities such as New York and Washington. They are directed by officials from the 1st Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, who coordinate air defense for the continental United States.
Details of the Falcon Virgo exercises are often secret.
“They ask us not to discuss it, for everyone’s safety,” McDonald said.
But this much is known: The exercises test Washington’s air-defense radar system and the aircraft that might have to confront an intruder. Those include the Air Force jets that fly continuously over the capital, planes that scramble from Andrews Air Force base and Coast Guard helicopters.
Participants include officials up the chain of command who must decide whether to intercept or shoot down an aircraft. Many involved in the exercises are not told that the Cessnas are “friendlies” until after they have been picked up by radar – but well before any decision would be made to shoot them down.
The Civil Air Patrol is an auxiliary of the Air Force, which evaluates each wing every two years and provides about $30 million a year for planes, fuel and other expenses. The patrol owns more than 500 Cessnas, the biggest fleet in the world.
But the Air Force doesn’t pay the volunteers, thus saving a huge amount of money.
“Most of my flying has been for myself, for my own enjoyment,” Gardella said, referring to his many years as a private pilot. “I started to feel the Lord gave me the ability and resources and passion to fly, and so I ought to give something back.”
That explains why he was lifting off into the sky in a Cessna shortly before midnight with Zuegel at his side. It was to be a long night; they were supposed to invade Washington twice.
Contacted a few days later, Gardella said he finished with such an adrenaline rush that he went to work instead of taking time off to sleep. And were his co-workers impressed that he had been out all night zooming into restricted airspace to be a target for fighter planes, helicopters and ground-to-air missiles?
“They’re not that into it,” he said. “They’re like, ‘That’s nice.’ “