Air Force's Cadet Program Moves to Build 21st Century Skills

Civil Air Patrol cadets still learn to fly a plane, but now also study robotics, cyber security and more.

CAP Cadets Pranav Bhojraj, Alexander Shu and Jordan Daley study their challenge in the Cyber Patriots compeition's first round, held in the RVCC computer lab in November. Credit: Courtesy of Jaysin Maskarenas
CAP Cadets Pranav Bhojraj, Alexander Shu and Jordan Daley study their challenge in the Cyber Patriots compeition's first round, held in the RVCC computer lab in November. Credit: Courtesy of Jaysin Maskarenas
In a hushed room at Raritan Valley Community College, three boys studied a laptop monitor carefully.

They weren't watching for an Angry Birds update, or trying to access some obscure website: they were studying the code on the computer, looking for signs of a security hack or virus.

The school hosted four teams in competition Dec. 7, all between 12 and about 17 years of age. The members of the teams belong to the Civil Air Patrol's Raritan Valley Composite Squadron cadet program, an Air Force auxiliary corps established during World War II to bolster the nation's defenses.

"I think it's America's best kept secret," Capt. Jaysin Maskarenas, of South Brunswick, said. 

Capt. Maskarenas became involved in the CAP about eight years ago, when his teenaged daughter wanted to join the cadets. He  watched as she explored aeronautics, astronomy and rocketry, and learned leadership skills—as well as piloting—all by the time she was in high school.

Alisha Maskarenas is now attending the U.S. Air Force Academy, and her father credits much of her success to her experiences in the CAP.

Capt. Maskarenas said the cadets follow a program which is not only based on the USAF's own, but use the same materials for training. 

"The cadet program is basically the Air Force offering its training program—scaled down for youth," Capt. Maskarenas said.

And just like the Air Force, that program has been evolving. Capt. Maskarenas noted the USAF has shifted more of its flight missions to drones and remote piloting, with the Navy undertaking more combat flights. This means today's airmen need different skills—and the cadets are following suit.

"In the last five or six years, the Air Force has been moving into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities," he said.

Those activities now include flying a remote controlled airplane, a growing robotics program (the Squadron has separate teams competing in area competitions) and the new Cyber Patriots program, teaching the computer skills needed to build and protect computer systems from hackers and viruses.

"More than just a competition, CyberPatriot provides students with hands-on learning and introduces many young people to the idea of cybersecurity as a profession," Capt.Lawrence Coyne said. "It is designed to educate and motivate students to become the cyber defenders the nation needs while promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics studies."

The squadron has 15 cadets currently participating in the program, including Cadet/Senior Airman Pranav Bhojraj; Cadet/Airman 1st Class Alexander Case; Cadet/Chief Master Sgt. James Case; Cadet/Tech Sgt. Jordan Daley; Cadet/Chief Master Sgt. Vedanta Dhobley; Cadet/Airman 1st Class Garrett Leung; Cadet/Tech Sgt. Aditi Panvelkar; Cadet/Senior Airman Heli Patel; Cadet/2nd Lt. Vatsal Patel; Cadet/Master Sgt. Neehar Polavarapu; Cadet/Senior Airman Akil Ponnambalam; Cadet/Airman 1st Class Vignesh Prassad; Cadet/Master Sgt. Aravind Ramakrishnan; Cadet/Senior Airman Alexander Shu; Cadet/Senior Airman Trevor Shu; Cadet/Airman 1st Class Alonzo; and Cadet/Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Kronmaier.

Of course, the cadets also participate in Civil Air Patrol activities—including search and rescue missions—and every cadet participates in flight training, first through simulators, then piloting the Squadron's Cessna airplane five times and a glider five times.

Flying the planes is certainly a highpoint for the cadets, but Capt. Maskarenas noted as the Air Force modifies its missions, it also modifies the people who are ideal service men and women.

"(The Air Force) used to be looking for the real 'macho' guys—the John Wayne types—now, they're looking for the nerds," he said.

The new STEM programs are possible because of a grant Frank Porath, a Bridgewater resident who has been a member of the Raritan Valley Composite Squadron for about 35 years, obtained. The grant was used to buy the robotics,  remote aircraft and flight simulation equipment the cadets use.

"We've been growing in leaps and bounds, especially in the cadets," he said. 

Members from Berkeley Heights to South Brunswick meet each Wednesday at Central Jersey Airport, in Hillsborough, in an enclosed Civil Air Patrol compound. The meetings begin will the uniformed cadets and CAP members in military formation before breaking into groups to work on their various activities.

Senior cadets are tasked with conducting the programs and mentoring the younger cadets—a key part of their leadership training also needed to advance.

Capt. Maskarenas noted the program—which draws heavily from middle school ages—offers a program for the kids unlike any other.

"You can't believe the things these kids get to do," he said.  


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