By Sue Moore
Schoolcraft resident Jon Steeby wears his affection for the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). He’s volunteered as a pilot for the Air Force auxiliary organization for the past three years. The uniformed volunteers are called to search for downed aircraft and lost hikers, to photograph storm damage and promote Civil Air Patrol at public events.
Steeby serves as a Training and Safety officer with the “Wildcards” MI-248 Squadron located at Battle Creek Air National Guard Base. That’s just part of the duties. CAP members train constantly. Members were called on the day after 9/11 to fly 1,000 feet over New York City to assess the amount of damage which couldn’t be determined from the ground. The MI-248 Squadron served in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, taking thousands of photos to assess damage.
His duffel bag is packed and ready to depart 24-7 if the call should come to fly the small aircraft based in Battle Creek. The process is set in motion when the alerting officer gets the call from Emergency Services at the National Operations Center. Dispatch looks for who is nearest to the problem and certified to fly at any hour of the day. The plane is then prepared for flight, weather checked and the best route determined.
Pilots fly as low as 1,000 feet above the ground when scanning the ground for the object they are looking for. An observer will be sitting in the right seat as part of the mission and a scanner in the back seat. Those members are not necessarily pilots but have been taught a specific way to scan the ground for information. CAP volunteers also mentor Cadets who hope to become a part of the Civil Air Patrol in later life or pursue a Military career.
At the age of 58, Steeby is living out his dreams of helping people, flying a Cessna 182 Skylane and participating in training missions that do “really cool stuff. I’m fortunate to have these opportunities” he said.
A special treat for CAP pilots is being a practice “target” for F16 fighter pilots to intercept and escort unauthorized aircraft from restricted airspace. “Typically a pilot does not want to see an F16 fighter off the wingtip, but in this training exercise, it’s all in a day’s work,” he said.
His day job is as Chief Engineer for Eaton Corporation in Galesburg where he manages several teams that design truck transmissions. “A nice perk of the job is driving semi-trucks over the Rocky Mountains and see how well our stuff works.”
A 1976 article about Steeby in the Vicksburg Commercial-Express in 1976 predicted his future interests. It described his exploits as a 14-year-old watching hang gliders on the dunes of Lake Michigan. The son of Gary and Joyce Steeby, long-time Schoolcraft residents, he was praised in the article for his interest in learning to fly airplanes when he was too young to test for his pilot’s license. He paid for his lessons by mowing lawns in Schoolcraft. Before that, he was building and collecting model airplanes. He graduated from Western Michigan University in 1982 and set off for a job in Washington D.C. as a civilian engineer with the Navy.
A friendship with a Schoolcraft High School classmate, Julie VanOrman, blossomed into marriage. The thought of moving closer to home brought the couple to Columbus, Ind., with Cummins Engine Company in 1985. A job offer from Eaton Corp. brought the couple even closer to Schoolcraft, but with a catch: a two-year Engineering Manager assignment to Eaton’s plant in Manchester, England. While there, he performed with a brass band, the only American in it. He had played trombone and baritone in the Schoolcraft High School band and wanted to keep his skills intact.
An emotional moment came just after 9/11 while Steeby lived in England. The band was scheduled to play on England’s Remembrance Day, observed annually, like Veterans Day here. “Their services that day were instead dedicated to the fallen on 9/11 in memory of their American friends.”
Steeby also uses his piloting skills as a partner in the nonprofit Eagle Air Inc. flying club, based at the Kalamazoo Airport. There are 15 owners in the club that share two aircraft for personal use. “The idea is to break even by sharing expenses such as fixed costs for hanger rent and annual inspections,” he said.
In a few months, he leaves for New York state as part of a CAP Mission to escort drone training flights for the Air Force. “I love the team work in coming together involving aircraft and people while doing good things for my country,” he said.