Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lost Civil Air Patrol paper plane found near Bremen, Indiana

PLYMOUTH -- The Cessna 182 flies steadily, rocking slightly in the lower atmosphere air currents. On the ground below, farmland, homes and pockets of woods roll surely past as those on board the single-engine aircraft scan the ground diligently.

Flying at 1,000 feet it's not a leisurely flight, but rather a flight with a purpose. The two men in the front seats gaze between instrumentation and the ground.

"Visual searching is literally how we find most of our targets," 1st Lt. Gary Brown says. "The Civil Air Patrol nationally averages about 100 saves a year by this method."

Brown, is the near-space balloon project manager for the Fox Valley Composite Squadron, a West Chicago, Ill.-based unit of the Civil Air Patrol.

Civil Air Patrol, CAP as it's known, routinely does search and rescue operations across the nation. The group, an official U.S. Air Force auxiliary, has more than 60,000 volunteer members that assist in small-scale search and rescue operations to large-scale disaster relief efforts.

The target of Saturday's airborne visual searching northwest of Plymouth was a fluorescent pink paper airplane with a 28-inch wingspan.

It all stems from a world record attempt launched from eastern Illinois on Dec. 28 by the squadron.

Squadron leaders started the project for youth cadet members, ages 12 to 17, as a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) project. Over the past couple of years, the group has launched several balloons. This one was different, though.

"This launch was extra special because we decided to go for a world record attempt," Brown said. "It was a shot at the Guinness World Record for 'highest paper airplane flight from a high-altitude balloon.' We thought, 'Let's go do that.'"

So, on Dec. 28, team members gathered at Kankakee Airport and let the balloon and paper airplane take to the skies. At first, everything seemed to be going as planned.

As it was ascending through 85,153 feet -- just 4,438 feet shy of the record of 89,591 feet -- both the balloon and paper airplane experienced some kind of failure. The balloon and plane were just northwest of Plymouth when the failure happened. Based on telemetry data and historical weather, team members determined a cone where the balloon and plane likely landed.

"We were disappointed, of course we were. But, if this was easy would it be worth doing?" Brown said. "Even though this is failure No. 2, we achieved greater altitudes and are coming closer and closer to our goal."

The group scrambled a plane that day in hopes of finding the missing paper airplane, Brown said. They had no such luck.

News of the endeavor quickly spread and generated tips, Brown said. One led to a kite up in a tree. Other leads ended up being National Weather Service balloons launched to gather atmospheric conditions at higher altitudes, Brown said. All were a bust.

Fast forward to Saturday, the squadron brought two planes and about a dozen personnel to Plymouth Municipal Airport for the search effort.

Finding a target only 28-inches across from 1,000 feet is no easy task. On a second pass across a field just west of Bremen; however, the paper airplane is spotted.

Truth be told, Saturday's mission to the clouds was a search and recovery mission in spirit only -- a training mission for the Civil Air Patrol's dedicated band of volunteers and cadets.

Cheryl Stichter, a farmer who lives just west of Bremen, made the actual discovery on Thursday.

"I was out working a field and I saw this thing in the field," Stichter said. "I could tell it was different. As I got closer I saw it was an airplane. I thought it was some kid's birthday present until I saw the Civil Air Patrol markings and other equipment on it."

Brown said the cadets working on the paper airplane project have been hard at work since the last one went missing working on a redesign for their next attempt.

"We're going to give the record another shot," Brown said with a smile. "And, we're going to get it."

Story and photo:

1st Lt. Gary Brown, left, and Capt. Bob Gerber inspect their Cessna 182 on Saturday at Plymouth Municipal Airport