The Civil Air Patrol was founded a week before the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor to enable volunteer pilots to put their personal airplanes and flying skills to use in defense of their country. 

Later this year, the organization known as the CAP will be presented with a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of the volunteer service of more than 120,000 aviators who used their own planes for volunteer combat operations and other emergency wartime missions under dangerous conditions. 

Civil Air Patrol

CAP pilots helped ward off German U-boat attacks on American oil tankers bound for Allied nations. They also took to the skies to patrol the nation’s borders, tow targets for military training, spot forest fires, conduct search and rescue missions, provide disaster relief, transport people and parts, and conduct orientation flights for future pilots.

Coca-Cola saluted the CAP in a series of print ads in the early-1940s. The organization’s World War II members – more than 200,000 strong – ranged from ordinary men, women and teenagers, to celebrities and other prominent figures. CAP pilots included a famed actor, a popular comic strip cartoonist, a Munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz,” the head of a major brewery and the founder of a famous doughnut chain.

The wartime ranks also included an award-winning film actress and a world-famous concert pianist. Less than 100 wartime members of the CAP are believed to be alive today.

Paving the Way for Female Aviators

Civil Air Patrol

Female aviators were banned from military service and effectively grounded until CAP came along. With the war effort consuming both fuel and planes, pilots like Willa Brown made the most of it as full participants in the organization’s wartime missions.

The first African-American woman to earn a U.S. private pilot’s license joined CAP when the U.S. entered World War II and was named federal coordinator of the organization’s Chicago civilian pilot training program. In 1942, she became CAP’s first female African-American officer after reaching the rank of lieutenant. 

Civil Air Patrol
Lt. Willa Brown

In the iconic photo (at left) from the early ‘40s, the pioneering aviator is shown drinking an ice-cold Coca-Cola.

A native of Kentucky, she began her career as a teacher and later earned a master mechanic’s certificate and an MBA. She started taking flight lessons and co-established the National Airmen’s Association of America to lobby Congress to integrate the U.S. Army Air Corps. 

Around the same time, Brown helped found the first black-owned and operated flight school to train black pilots and mechanics. Her efforts inspired the creation of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, which led to the integration of the U.S. military services in 1948.

Brown eventually became the coordinator of war-training service for the Civil Aeronautics Authority and later was a member of the Federal Aviation Administration's Women's Advisory Board.

In 2002, a decade after her death, Brown was named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Aviation and Aerospace.