Signed into existence by administrative order on December 1, 1941, the Civil Air Patrol (C.A.P.) began as an organization of civilian pilots devoted to supporting America's armed forces. With the onset of World War II, its membership was quickly mobilized to search for, and often engage, enemy submarines off the East Coast of the United States.(1) After the war, the C.A.P. became the official auxiliary of the Air Force. Although a military ranking structure would remain in place for its volunteer personnel, they were assigned to strictly non-combat missions such as natural disaster relief, rescue operations, and evacuations. Civil defense officials were quick to see the value of a large pool of skilled pilots ready to provide aid during emergency situations and when available, they often coordinated their efforts with local C.A.P. units. Sky Sentinels, a 1956 public service film sponsored by the aircraft company Lear, Inc., tells the story of the C.A.P.'s participation in Operation Cue, a massive training exercise conducted by the Federal Civil Defense Administration during an actual atomic detonation at the Nevada Test Site.(2) Oscar nominated director Henry King, perhaps best remembered today for his work on 12 O'Clock High, The Song of Bernadette, and The Gunfighter, oversaw the production of the film. As a Colonel in the Civil Air Patrol, he also stars in it.
Sky Sentinels opens on a sound stage in Fox Studios where Henry King sits behind the camera shooting a comedy scene. He is interrupted by a phone call from William Lear who asks about Wings Over the A Bomb, a film the two have been collaborating on. King promises to hand deliver the final print and the next day, in full C.A.P. uniform, he flies his personal plane to Lear headquarters. Lear greets King warmly and the men retreat into his office and start up a projector to preview their project. Wings Over the A Bomb, narrated by legendary actor Tyrone Power, begins to play as a sort of film-within-a-film. Power describes the various tasks assigned to C.A.P. pilots during Operation Cue. Once the test bomb is detonated, light aircraft of various makes and models begin to fly medical and rescue personnel into the remnants of a model town destroyed by the blast. Larger planes land aid supplies and evacuate simulated casualties, easily bypassing the damaged roads and infrastructure which hinder other forms of transportation. Perhaps the most important job undertaken by pilots, however, is aerial fallout monitoring. By flying trained radiological monitors in figure-eight patterns downwind from ground zero, the size, shape, speed, direction and intensity of a fallout plume may be calculated. With high-power radios, pilots can relay this vital information to civil defense leaders who will pass it along to populations in the path of the fallout.
Aerial fallout monitoring requires tremendous skill and concentration from the pilot, though equipment exists to make an otherwise difficult situation easier. Tyrone Power takes a moment to describe autopilot machines, automatic rudder machines and high-frequency radios which allow pilots to communicate clearly with mobile and stationary parties on the ground. "This is no job for the old-time Seat of the Pants flyer!" Power further adds that such equipment is available through Lear, Inc. When Wings Over the A Bomb ends, the camera pulls back and reveals King and Lear congratulating themselves on a well-produced film. Voice-over narration explains that the C.A.P., in addition to providing military support and disaster relief, is also working to recruit youths into aviation and engineering activities across the United States. King is once again interrupted by a phone call, this time informing him of a missing plane. The film concludes with King quickly departing on a search and rescue mission. As a privately produced film, Sky Sentinels would not be deemed obsolete by government civil defense agencies in the decades following its release. Conversely, the Civil Air Patrol argued in publications that it was incredibly popular. By the December of 1957, the organization claimed, Sky Sentinels had been shown 231 times on American television.(3)
Sky Sentinels may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE.
References 1. Blascovich, Leonard. Introduction to Civil Air Patrol. April, 2013. p. 5-9. 2. Civil Air Patrol Annual Report. December, 1957. p. 15. 3. Civil Air Patrol Annual Report. December, 1957. p. 15.