- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

SPEARFISH, S.D. (AP) - Founded on Dec. 1, 1941 - six days before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the Civil Air Patrol played an integral role in protecting the home front from Axis threats during World War II. After the war, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) was established as an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, dedicated to emergency air response services, providing aerospace education, and nurturing the nation’s fledgling pilots through cadet programs.

One of the most important services the Civil Air Patrol provides is air and ground assistance on search and rescue missions. CAP members as young as 12 are trained extensively to assist law enforcement on such missions. And the 14-18-year-old cadets of Spearfish’s Lookout Mountain Composite CAP Squadron are no exception.

When the Spearfish CAP Squadron was called to assist in the search for Peter Kovarik, priest at the Lead and Deadwood Catholic Churches, Cadet Senior Master Sgt. Justin Harris, Cadet Master Sgt. Ryan Harris, Cadet Tech. Sgt. Keyvin Rauscher, Cadet Tech. Sgt. Austin Rauscher, Cadet 2nd Lt. Jared Doyle, and Cadet 2nd Lt. Brad Blansett were ready.

Kovarik, an amateur pilot, took off from the Spearfish Airport/Clyde Ice Field on Friday, Nov. 28 in his single-engine Cessna 107B for a recreational flight around the Spearfish area.

Kovarik was reported missing when he didn’t show up to Saturday mass in either Lead or Deadwood, the Black Hills Pioneer (http://bit.ly/1ADe02Z ) reported. Inclement weather pushed the search for Kovarik to Sunday morning, but the plans were laid out the night before.

Maj. David Small of the Lookout Mountain Composite CAP Squadron called each of his cadets at around 10 p.m. Saturday to alert them they were on standby. Small called the cadets again at about midnight and informed them they were to meet at the CAP office at Clyde Ice Field in Spearfish at 5 a.m.

Small, squadron Capt. Bill Collister, and the six cadets made up the ground team that brought the search for Kovarik to a close.

The team set out at 6 a.m., met Crook County, Wyoming’s Sheriff Steve Stahla and Sheriff Elect Jeff Hodge in Belle Fourche, and motored northwest to Colony, Wyoming. GPS pings from Kovarik’s cell phone were pinpointed to a wide circle around Colony and Alzeda, Montana.

The cadets spent several hours searching around Colony, utilizing direction-finding devices they’d trained with extensively to hone in on pings coming from the beacon in Kovarik’s plane.

Three CAP planes - two from South Dakota, one from Wyoming - peered down on the ruffled white blanket of the high plains, searching for signs of Kovarik’s white Cessna. The planes relayed their info to a CAP base of operations in Rapid City, which passed it on to the Spearfish CAP ground team.

It was cold. Well below zero with wind chill. Cold enough for frost to glaze the Cadets’ eyelids and lips, which 15-year-old Doyle recalled vividly. But adrenaline and a fierce sense of duty usurped the chill.

“It was freezing, but we knew our job, we knew what we had to do,” Doyle said.

Several hours of searching around Colony proved fruitless. It was about that time that the Wyoming CAP plane picked up the emergency beacon signal from Kovarik’s plane in an area roughly 25 miles north of Alzeda called the Finger Buttes. The ground team loaded back into their vehicle and hit the road

The terrain of the Finger Buttes proved much more demanding. The team’s directional finding gear drove them toward the heart of the buttes, up increasingly steep snow-covered slopes.

“There was a sense of seriousness, and that this was actually the real thing, like, ‘this is what we trained for,’” 14-year-old Ryan Harris recalled.

This was the younger Harris’ first search and rescue mission. His 17-year-old brother Justin had been on a few missions before, so had several others, but this one proved different for all of the young cadets.

“There was that feeing of the unknown, of whether we were going to find anything,” 16-year-old Keyvin Rauscher said.

That feeling pervaded until the team came to the crest of a ridge, where the six teenage Civil Air Patrol Cadets discovered the snowy wreckage of Kovarik’s plane.

The cadets radioed in their findings and established a perimeter about 100-150 feet away from the site, where they waited for Small, Collister, and Carter County, Montana Sheriff Neil Kittelmann to arrive.

This was the first successful search and rescue mission find for all of the Spearfish cadets, but it’s safe to say it didn’t come out the way they - or anyone - had hoped. Law enforcement officials pronounced Kovarik dead at the scene. The crash that killed him is currently under investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board.

The cadets spent roughly an hour alone near the crash site. And while the gravity of the situation certainly set in when the team came across the wreckage, the discipline and sense of duty the cadets received through CAP training kept them focused on the task at hand.

“The adrenaline kind of kicks in and blocks out the emotion, it gets us straight to, ‘What are we doing here? What’s our job? What are we going to do?’ There was certainly emotion afterwards, but once we’re there we’re kicking into the mode of ‘let’s do this by the book,’” Doyle said. “We were trained exactly what to do in this situation and we did that.”

Once law enforcement officials arrived at the scene the Lookout Mountain Composite CAP ground team hiked back to their van and drove home, arriving in Spearfish nearly 12 hours after they set out on the mission.

“There are very few areas in life where a 14-year-old can be treated with respect. These people are really contributing a service, they’re not ‘oh, isn’t it cute, our kids are out playing,’ they’re contributing a real service,” Small said. “I’m very proud of these young people.”

As one would expect, the CAP officers and cadets who discovered Kovarik’s mangled plane are still processing the mission and its outcome some weeks on.

“Our training prepares us for these events,” 17-year-old Austin Rauscher said. “But I think in our minds . we’re still there.”

The Civil Air Patrol’s cadet program is open to anyone between the ages of 12 and 18 years old and lasts until the age of 21. Those who join at 18 skip over the cadet program and start in the senior member program.

The cadet program consists of marching, drilling, color guard, leadership courses, emergency response training, and more. Cadets in the Spearfish Lookout Mountain Composite CAP Squadron meet every Thursday evening in the CAP trailer located at Spearfish Airport/Clyde Ice Field.

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Information from: Black Hills Pioneer, http://www.bhpioneer.com

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