After the two tornadoes that killed a total of 26 Oklahoma residents last week, the U.S. Air Force auxiliary has been asked to document damage at up to 14,000 pieces of property hit by a May 20 storm.
"We do more disaster relief than we do search and rescue," said Capt. Rick Rutledge.
From the sky, air patrol volunteers can often spot a piece of damage that government agencies or relief workers might not know exists. They also can share information from storm tracks, letting forecasters obtain information from areas inaccessible from the ground.
"They can look at the photos and say, 'That was a tornado' or 'Those were straight-line winds," Rutledge said.
Before each flight, typically in a small plane, the volunteers are given a list of things to accomplish — see where a tornado finally lifted or measure the storm's width, for example. The same rules apply when they fly after wildfires, especially when flames stretch beyond the nearest road.
Last year, the local CAP had five search and rescue missions in Oklahoma, but 17 missions for state emergency officials and others.
Oklahoma's transportation secretary, Gary Ridley, said aerial photographs of damage are especially helpful.
"We can see before and after and we can make assessments of where help is needed," said Ridley, who traveled Monday to the severely damaged area near the Plaza Towers Elementary School to thank 400 state transportation workers hauling debris away. "FEMA can use them to make decisions on debris removal."
Volunteers can come from any walk of life, but for a Sunday mission to trace damage from Newcastle to Moore, the pilot was CAP Lt. Col. Aaron Oliver, a U.S. Air Force captain whose day job is with the USAF Flight Standards Agency.
After an hourlong flight through high winds and low clouds, he put the tiny Cessna 182 back on the runway with a bump smoother than a drive on a gravel road. He shrugged off a compliment.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.