There’s a three-word unwritten mantra now woven into the culture of Civil Air Patrol.
“Everyone can contribute,” said Kathy Conyers, CAP’s chief information officer.
Need evidence? Look no further than the three medalists in this year’s Maj. Gen. Mark Smith JanEX Spirit of Innovation Prize competition — Col. David Crawford, a 40-year CAP member and former wing commander, and 10-year member Capt. Rhonda McMillen, a squadron commander, are recipients of the silver and bronze medals, respectively.
And the gold medalist, Cadet Airman 1st Class Colby Smith of the Pennsylvania Wing’s Jesse Jones Composite Squadron 304. By the way, he’s not yet old enough to drive.
This marks the second annual JanEX competition, with results announced this weekend at the CAP National Conference in Bellevue, Washington. Eighty ideas were submitted in this year’s competition. Names, ranks, squadrons, wings, and regions were unknown to the judges.
“We just looked at their ideas,” Conyers said. “We have a gold winner who is a very young cadet. We have a silver winner who has been a member and has been in various areas of responsibility for a long time, and then we have a unit commander who is sort of in the middle of those two, with her great idea of matching cadets with pilots so they can fly.
“It really validated what we have been trying to make our rallying cry, that everybody can contribute. That was really gratifying this year.”
Conyers has spearheaded the JanEX prize competition from the beginning. Each idea was judged based on some key questions:
“Is it new? Is it truly something that’s useful to Civil Air Patrol? Is it ethical? And is it ‘Wow!,’ something that really wows us?” she said.
Here’s a brief look at this year’s three medalists:
Had someone told Cadet Smith that only a few months into his CAP career he would win the organization’s top innovation prize, he would have been flabbergasted. And when he learned of his award by email, his dad worried that it was a scam.
“It was really surprising,” the youth said. “I was at work [at a local bowling alley] when I got the email. I was lucky that my boss gave me a quick break so I could catch my breath. It’s a really big deal for me, not anything I could have imagined.”
His gold medal idea — aimed at easing the national pilot shortage — sounded like a brainstorm sparked during a video game session. But it actually came from an exercise he and fellow cadets performed an hour before each squadron meeting in clubs they organized to study advanced drill, flight simulation, or rocketry.
“It was a group effort,” the cadet said. “I thought [flight simulation] was a pretty neat idea, so I thought, ‘What if this could happen on a more national scale?’”
His proposal is a national competition using flight simulator programs to identify the most skilled cadets. These low-cost programs are more accessible and can help grow a diverse pilot pool for the military and the private sector.
Smith — driven he says by a desire to serve his country — is an aspiring pilot who hopes to attend the Air Force Academy. He has simple advice for fellow cadets or those considering joining CAP: “Get involved.”
In his short tenure, he’s tromped through the woods on search and rescue efforts, helped maintain an air show flight line, and participated in other activities he never imagined before joining the Air Force auxiliary.
“There’s not much like [CAP] out there,” he said.
Crawford’s silver medal-winning idea “simplifies the organization and visualization of spot targets … aiding in sortie planning and situational awareness.”
Target lists are converted into files for visualization in familiar tools like Google Earth and ForeFlight. Briefing times are reduced, and data is provided directly to air crews, improving mission efficiency.
“For all practical purposes, I didn’t submit it because of the contest per se,” said Crawford, North Carolina Wing commander from 2012-2016. “[The contest] provided me a means of broadening the horizons of who would know that I was working on [the project].
“It’s real in that it’s an adaptation of something that is already in existence.”
McMillen, commander of the Florida Wing’s TI-CO Composite Squadron since July 2019, saw a bottleneck when it came to connecting cadets with experienced pilots for orientation flights. In fact, some cadets aged out of CAP for orientation flights and flight scholarships.
Her bronze-winning project aims to create a platform connecting pilots, aircraft, and cadets.
“I saw it as an opportunity to help CAP catapult itself to the public, to make CAP more friendly to everyone,” McMillen said.
She added, “We just offer so much stuff far beyond what Boy Scouts offer and Girl Scouts offer. … I just saw it as an opportunity to expand the program.”
McMillen also addressed the importance of innovation in CAP, calling it “the catalyst for launching new ideas and inventive skills to transform them into reality so we can accomplish our mission.”
The prize is named for Maj. Gen. Mark Smith, CAP national commander from August 2017-August 2021. During his tenure Smith, along with the Board of Governors, added Innovation as one of CAP’s strategic goals.
“[Smith’s] leadership helped transform our culture toward continuous improvement — one that welcomes innovative and creative solutions,” Maj. Gen. Edward D. Phelka, who succeeded Smith as national commander, said when the new award was announced in March 2022.
This year’s JanEX competition taught valuable lessons, Conyers said.
“It tells us we have incredibly talented young people,” she said.
“And it also says that innovation isn’t just for senior members. We can learn from our cadets as well.”