Richard Gilson’s life turned out differently rather than leading to the pilot’s career he’d dreamed of, but he feels everything he did, every opportunity that came his way, was thanks to his six years as a cadet in the New York Wing’s Syracuse Cadet Squadron.
When Gilson was 12, he began seeking an organization that could provide a positive male role model — the father figure his childhood lacked. Raised mostly by his mother, he found Civil Air Patrol was exactly what he needed.
“It gives you goals you must set and meet, and when you meet those goals, you get rewarded with new rank and/or new responsibilities,” he said. “It teaches you to be responsible for your actions — something very important to learn, especially if you, like me, didn’t always have much supervision or accountability at home.”
Gilson said he has always been interested in flying, going back to his favorite television show, “Sky King,” about a wealthy Arizona rancher with his own plane and landing strip. In the early 1960s, however, flying was very expensive. To pay for flying lessons, he took on several after-school jobs. “I really wanted to fly. I thought about flying all the time. Soloing at 16 was the greatest feeling ever
“In fact,” he said, “on my gravestone is an etching of the plane I soloed in, the Cherokee 93T.”
To continue flying, Gilson planned to graduate from college and become a military officer and pilot.
Unfortunately, tragedy ensued.
Not only did he fail the military’s vision test, but a serious motorcycle accident stopped him from finishing his degree. He had no choice, he said, but to enlist in the U.S. Air Force and try to become an officer and fly through other means.
He found his six years with Civil Air Patrol gave him many advantages in basic training and beyond, including handling responsibilities, improving test scores, and promoting faster than his peers.
“A lot of what was on our promotion tests I had learned in CAP,” Gilson said.
He was assigned as a radio relay communications operator and sent overseas. “It was the best thing. I wanted to learn — that’s how you get ahead — something else I found out in CAP.”
Ultimately, he became so proficient that he earned an Air Force Commendation Medal for his efforts.
“All the opportunities I received in the Air Force, all the praise and responsibilities, I owed to CAP’s teaching me leadership and to set goals — it all just fell into place,” he said.
In 1972, after several international and domestic assignments, Gilson was assigned to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. When asked to go overseas yet again, he decided instead to pursue other options and turned in his papers.
He became a rural route carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. And he found that once again his time as a cadet and then in the Air Force gave him a leg up on this new career in both salary and tenure.
“I always worked hard and always saved my money,” Gilson said. “These are more lessons I had learned as a cadet.”
And he intended to put the money he’d saved to good use. “I wanted to do something to help the cadets in my old squadron,” he said.
But it wasn’t until he attended his 50th high school reunion and met up with an old classmate, now an adult member of the Syracuse squadron, that he found out how.
“When I was a cadet, we used to meet at the high school on a Tuesday night. We’d be in the auditorium for drills, and they let us use three classrooms for instruction,” Gilson recalled.
“Now they have an actual building, planes, a simulator. My jaw dropped at the opportunities available for today’s Syracuse cadets.”
Even so, Gilson learned extra funding was still needed for cadets to participate in all the training opportunities offered.
“I learned some can’t always afford the uniforms and the camps — they just don’t have the money,” he said. “Some of the cadets also needed more encouragement than I did, and I wanted to help.”
Gilson told the squadron’s senior leaders he wanted all the money he would donate to be used to motivate cadets and allow them to have fun and learn and not worry about how to pay for everything.
“We are pleased to have the Richard Gilson Syracuse Cadet Squadron Fund managed by the Civil Air Patrol Foundation.” said Kristina Jones, president and executive director of the CAP Foundation. “His wanting to create a future for Syracuse cadets is meaningful and the squadron is very excited for his gift.”
And Gilson’s message to a young person today considering Civil Air Patrol?
“I’d tell them a lot of organizations out there have good things, but for me, it was all about CAP offering guidelines, responsibilities, and accountability.
“CAP builds your self-confidence,” he said. “When you become an adult, all those habits you learned as a cadet, you fall back on. What you get out of it, it’s immense. If you have the drive, they can help you; if you need an extra push, and we can provide it, that’s even better.”
Gilson and Nancy, his wife of over 24 years, live in the Tampa Bay area. He never had his own plane or landing strip like “Sky King,” but the lessons from CAP still enabled him to soar.