The Coast Guard's eye in the sky: Civil Air Patrol monitors ice along Connecticut and Thames rivers
About 1,500 feet in the air in clear blue skies, the focus is down below.
Keith Neilson, a seasoned pilot, is in the cockpit. Jason Otrin, the sole member of the air crew, is seated behind him.
At 9:46 a.m., Neilson radios to Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound to let officials know the ice patrol mission has begun.
"Three souls on board. Four hours of fuel, plus one hour reserve," Neilson says over the crackle of the radio, the hum of the four-seat, single engine Cessna 182 Skylane in the background.
Neilson, 69, and Otrin, 49, dressed in green flight suits, are members of the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, which on Saturday morning surveyed ice along the Connecticut and Thames rivers for the Coast Guard.
The plane took off from Groton-New London Airport headed for Old Saybrook, where the Connecticut River begins, then up the river to Hartford before turning back south and heading toward the Mohegan-Pequot Bridge and down to the mouth of the Thames River. The total mission lasted about an hour.
Along the way, Otrin called out various check points and the level of ice buildup seen from his seat in the back of the plane, where he was taking photographs.
Neilson — who wore a black baseball cap with "6075" in white letters on the front, signifying the number of the Thames River Composite Squadron of CAP, of which he and Otrin are members — has been flying for more than 50 years. He said he received his pilot's license before his driver's license.
The Coast Guard has asked Neilson and Otrin to survey 10 points along the Connecticut River and six along the Thames looking for areas where ice is extending from the shore, blocks are adrift in the river, and if there are any chokeholds.
The Coast Guard will later review the photographs taken by Otrin to determine where to concentrate its icebreaking efforts.
Much of the ice surveyed Saturday was concentrated in the lower half of the Connecticut River, south of Middletown. The spots surveyed on Thames River were largely clear of ice. "No pictures needed," Otrin called out.
This is a relatively new mission for the Connecticut wing of CAP, which also conducts patrols of the Long Island Sound in the summer, runs a cadet program and conducts aerospace education missions.
The wing also partners with local, state and federal agencies in support of disaster relief and homeland security missions. Last summer, for example, Otrin photographed damage to the state following Tropical Storm Isaias to send to Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster assessment.
Col. James A. Ridley Sr., the Connecticut wing commander for CAP, underscored the efforts of his members, all of whom are volunteers, in an emailed statement.
"I am extremely proud of all our professional volunteers' contributions to our missions for America here in Connecticut and of the effect those contributions have meant to our community, state and those who live here," Ridley said.
While the region has experienced mild winters in recent years, in 2018, when massive chunks of ice on the Connecticut River prompted emergency conditions in the town of Haddam, CAP flew more than 60 sorties accumulating about 120 hours flight time, receiving a Certificate of Merit from the Coast Guard for its efforts.
That year, the winter stretched into early spring with the region experiencing five coastal storms between the beginning of the March and middle of April, Neilson said.
"Ice was jammed up in irregular corners of the river," he said. "We were seeing whole areas blocked off significantly."
This year has already seen several heavy snowstorms, which has led CAP to cancel some of its ice patrol missions, so it could be another busy season, Neilson said.