The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is the civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force (USAF). While the CAP is sponsored by the Air Force, it is not an operating reserve component under the Air Force or the federal government. Since CAP is not part of any uniformed service branch and its members are civilians, it is not subject to the laws governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. CAP is a non-profit volunteer organization with an aviation-minded membership that includes people from all backgrounds, lifestyles, and occupations. It performs three congressionally assigned key missions: Emergency Services (including search and rescue), Aerospace Education for youth and the general public, and cadet programs for teenage youth. In addition, it has recently been tasked with Homeland Security and courier service missions. CAP also performs non-auxiliary missions for various governmental and private agencies, such as local law enforcement, FEMA, and the American Red Cross.

Membership in the organization consists of cadets ranging from 12 to 21 years of age, and senior members 18 years of age and up. These two groups each have the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of pursuits; the Cadet program contributes to the development of the former of these two groups with a structured syllabus and an organization based upon United States Air Force ranks and pay grades, while the older members serve as instructors and supervisors. All members wear uniforms while performing their duties.

Nationwide CAP is a major operator of single-engine general aviation aircraft, used in the execution of its various missions, including orientation flights for cadets and the provision of significant emergency services capabilities. Because of these extensive flying opportunities, many CAP members become licensed pilots.

The military organization is headed by the National Headquarters (with authority over the national organization) followed by eight regional commands and 52 state wings (including Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico). Each wing supervises the individual squadrons that comprise the basic operational unit of the organization.

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