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Civil Air Support

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Civil Air Support is a UK-registered charity comprising pilots, observers and supporters who are organised to provide complementary air support to agencies or individuals who would otherwise not have access to such support or whose own regular air support is not available. 

All aircraft are privately owned and flights are privately operated on behalf of Civil Air Support by the aircraft owners without charge.

Civil Air Support

Capabilities currently being delivered to Local Authorities, Emergency Services and other Charities include.

  • Observation & Reporting
  • Aerial Search
  • Aerial Photography and Aerial Surveys
  • Rural Event Safety Top Cover for large events and Communications relay
  • Personnel and Equipment Relocation

Overview of Civil Air Support

Civil Air Support (CAS) is entirely voluntary with pilots and observers providing their time and their aircraft free of charge.  Although it is not yet recognized as an emergency service it is available to the emergency services to provide an air search capability when other air assets, military and police, are not available. 

Civil Air Support is also available to the local government civil contingencies unit, the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to assist in the response to natural disasters such as significant flooding. 

Distributed Aircraft

The key to success is to have aircraft well distributed around the country flown by experienced personnel who regularly fly together as constituted crews and who consequently develop high standards of crew cooperation. Widely distributed assets ensure shorter transit times and therefore faster response. Crews are also more likely to be operating in familiar airspace and over familiar terrain. 

Aircraft best suited for observation and aerial photography tend to be of high wing configuration but other types are also very useful depending on the role.  Different configurations can be matched to appropriate sorties and there is a place for everything in the Civil Air Support fleet from multi-seat aircraft to autogyros, light helicopters and even microlights

All Civil Air Support aircraft, apart from unmanned aircraft, are operated in the private category and the majority of pilots have a private licence although some have higher qualifications.  Many Civil Air Support pilots are ex-military or commercial with very high levels of experience. 

Depending on availability the air observation service is provided from dawn until dusk under what is termed visual flight rules.

Civil Air Support
Images Credit: Civil Air Support

Civil Air Support Pilots

The minimum level of experience for joining the Civil Air Support as a pilot is a valid pilot’s licence and at least 200 flying hours as Pilot in Command (PIC), although the final decision must rest with the Ops Director. However, would-be volunteer pilots need also to be able to commit to the role and show initiative during operations.  

It takes a considerable amount of administration (and therefore expense to a charity) to process and maintain an application. Therefore Civil Air Support is keen to hear from pilots who not only have the necessary flying experience but also a commitment to the project and who are prepared to put in the necessary effort.

Organisation of Civil Air Support

The Organisation is headed by a Board of Trustees supported by a central administration team and an Operations Director. Each of the regions that make up the operational structure of the charity is supervised by a Regional Operations Manager.

There is one Ops Manual for the entire UK. Policy, supervision and administration are common to the UK organisation as a whole.

Civil Air Support Operations

All manned Civil Air Support aircraft are operated within the ‘private category’ which means that all flights are private and entirely voluntary.  Civil Air Support cannot, therefore, be held under contract; neither can it receive payment nor can it operate under any form of ‘mutuality of obligation’ with another party. 

Many Civil Air Supportcrew members are ex-military, ex-police or high-time civilian aircraft operators. Some Civil Air Supportpilots have less experience but all pilots are matched to appropriate missions by an effective supervision system involving direct input from the executives. The final decision to respond to a request for specific airborne assistance always rests with the individual pilot in command. 

Whilst the Civil Air Support has several dedicated observers, most crews comprise two pilots (with the second pilot acting as an observer) – with the inherent safety benefit. Pilots and observers are encouraged to fly as ‘constituted crews’ so that they become thoroughly familiar with their aircraft and achieve a high level of crew cooperation. 

All Civil Air Support operations fall well within the privileges of the UK private pilot licence and within the limits of the UK Air Navigation Order as it relates to private flying. 

No alleviations from these rules are granted and none are required. Civil Air Support flying is not only highly supervised but it is usually very straightforward and planned to involve relatively low work rates. 

Skills that new crew members must acquire relate to developing familiarity with certain items of equipment and with developing high levels of crew cooperation rather than pure handling skills. Generally, the flying skills taught within the private pilot licence syllabus are sufficient. 

Regions are encouraged to form their operations cells to prepare, monitor and collect data from all missions. 


Civil Air Support sorties will routinely be notified to the UK Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre and details are also passed, if appropriate, to the RAF Low Flying Cell, local police control rooms, local air traffic control units and even local flying clubs. Every effort is made by regional ops cells to coordinate Civil Air Supportoperations with all other airspace users. 

Written crew reports from every sortie are combined with feedback from user agencies to develop Standard Operating Procedures and to maintain Civil Air Support Safety & Quality Management systems.

Civil Air Support Tasking
Images Credit: Civil Air Support


As an independent organisation, Civil Air Support cannot be placed under the control of any other organisation. Overall policy and direction are provided by the Board of Trustees Operations Manager providing a point of contact and administration at the local level. 

The Operations Manager will also provide training opportunities for its members and mentor both the pilots and the observers. Nevertheless, the final decision to embark on a simple air observation flight or, if qualified, to respond to a request for specific airborne assistance rests with the individual pilot. 

Once authorised by the Operations Manger, the pilot must decide if his/her aircraft is serviceable if the weather is within limits for the aircraft and his/her skills and if he or she is, in all respects, fit to fly. 

Although Civil Air Support cannot be tasked by other agencies such as the police and Her Majesty’s Coastguard the charity does look to these agencies for coordination so that, where possible, the aircraft is in the right place at the right time and, more importantly, there is no conflict with any other aircraft taking part in the same operation. 

In the UK the responsibility for search and rescue (SAR) action for civilians overland rests with the police although they often rely on the mountain and lowland rescue services, also volunteers, to provide trained personnel.


The vast majority of Civil Air Support aircraft are dual-crewed and fitted with dual controls. Most are simple 2-seat types possessing good performance, safe handling, an adequate cruising speed of around 100mph and an endurance of several hours. 

These aircraft can operate safely out of small and basic airstrips and can deploy relatively long distances whilst still achieving useful periods on any task. 

Many Civil Air Support aircraft are of high wing configuration making them ideal for ground observation and photography. 

The Civil Air Support fleet also includes several higher capacity aircraft, helicopters and an increasing number of Autogyros that offer the slow flight capability of helicopters but at a much lower operating cost. 

In the UK the Civil Air Support has regular availability for around 110 aircraft.

How you can help

To find out more about the Civil Air Support please visit their website at

Follow the link on the site to ask any questions or to volunteer as a Civil Air Support pilot or Observer.

Please also consider making a donation on the website in order to fund this valuable service.

£130 will cover between 2 and 3 hours of searching by one of their aircraft – which compares favourably with several thousand pounds an hour required by a search helicopter.

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