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Maj. John Spangler, South Dakota DAE, enjoys helping cadets achieve aviation goals

Posted on April 14, 2022 at 10:54 AM by Virginia Smith

Maj. Spangler demonstrates airflow to a class of college students

Maj. John Spangler, South Dakota Wing DAE, shows students at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology a model of a fowler flap equipped airfoil to demonstrate airflow and stall characteristics.

April 13, 2022

Meet Maj. John Spangler, the Director of Aerospace Education (DAE) for South Dakota Wing and Aerospace Education Officer (AEO) for Rushmore Composite Squadron near Rapid City, South Dakota. He began his CAP career in Nebraska Wing as a cadet at age 14. "My father and mother both served in CAP during World War II," he says. "My father was a private pilot."  As a senior member in the 1970s, he served as Wing Medical Officer. Yet, the professional demands of a medical career, including time as a Department Chair of Pediatric Cardiology, did not allow time for CAP service. Upon retirement, he returned to CAP as an AEO. One of the highlights of his time as an AEO has been developing a flight simulator program for the South Dakota Wing. Each of the Wing's squadrons has already received the simulator, which is custom-made to simulate the instrument panel in each unit's aircraft. "I transport the system to the local squadron, install it and check all aspects of operation," he says. He enjoys seeing the successes of the cadets and helping them achieve their aviation goals. Maj. Spangler responds to any publicity of his successes -- such as the flight sim project and a major wind tunnel project -- by deflecting to others and emphasizing his role of support. "The last three years have been a dynamic and exciting time for AE activities in our area," he says. We asked him some questions about his career with Civil Air Patrol, and his answers follow.

What are your current duty positions?

I am the DAE of South Dakota Wing and AEO of Rushmore Composite Squadron.

Please tell us when and how you became involved in Civil Air Patrol.

A photo of Maj. Spangler as a cadet in Nebraska Wing

Maj. Spangler was a cadet in the Nebraska Wing (circa 1960).

I first joined Civil Air Patrol, Fremont Nebraska Composite Squadron, at 14 years of age shortly after I started pilot training in Fremont, Nebraska. My father and mother both served in CAP during WW II. My father was a private pilot. During my time as a cadet, I competed for and was chosen to attend the Jet Orientation Activity. I have about 8 hours of orientation flight in the USAF T-33A jet trainer. The following year, I competed in the International Air Cadet Exchange program and was selected as the cadet participant from Nebraska. I was assigned Switzerland as my exchange country and was privileged to have many solo flights in sailplanes with the Swiss AeroClub. Riding ridge lift along the side of a Swiss mountain may be the ultimate flying thrill.

How many years have you been in Civil Air Patrol? Tell us about your CAP career path that led to your current roles.

Following many years working in higher education (which consumed all my time) I took a hospital staff position in Pennsylvania. When my professional life allowed, I joined Pennsylvania Wing and served for two years as Wing Medical Officer in the late 1970s with the rank of Captain. Thereafter, as a Department Chair in Pediatric Cardiology and later as an Associate Professor of Pediatrics, professional demands precluded further CAP service. I moved to South Dakota, and I served as an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of South Dakota medical campus in Rapid City. Upon retirement, I rejoined Civil Air Patrol as AEO with the Rushmore Composite Squadron quartered at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. In January of 2022, I was asked to serve as South Dakota Wing DAE and advanced to the rank of Major.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your Civil Air Patrol experience? 

This is a difficult question for me to answer. Every aspect of my CAP activities has been very rewarding – from flying in United States Air Force jet trainers at 17 years old and solo soaring in Switzerland along the side of a sizable mountain near Geneva Switzerland to my present position as a CAP educator. It has all been wonderful, exciting and fulfilling. My current position allows me to continue my life-long job as educator and is a perfect way to retire.    

Tell us about the highlights of your CAP experience since you have been back in the organization in the AE mission field.

1. When I joined Rushmore Squadron, there was a shortage of flight simulators across our Wing. We initiated a program to provide a new updated flight simulator to each squadron in the Wing. To date we have equipped all of the squadrons with new simulators consisting of an improved computer and video board, a 40- to 48-inch high definition monitor, a copy of the FSX simulator program, a several hundred page textbook on instruction in all aspects of flight learning with FSX, teaching materials such as aeronautical charts, approach plates and reference materials. We supply log sheets to document personnel training and equipment usage. I transport the system to the local squadron, install it and check all aspects of operation. I always try to instruct at least one local member on the proper educational methods for the use of this equipment. These systems are NOT supplied with high speed, state-of-the-art aircraft models for cadets to fly. Instead, we supply Cessna 172 and 182 aircraft sporting a fresh CAP livery and, if possible, carrying the N number of the local CAP aircraft. I can usually reproduce the instrument panel present in the squadron’s aircraft. I always tweak the aerodynamic programming for each aircraft to more closely represent that of a real-world aircraft. I learned these skills by trial and error while building my own home CRJ/B737 type of simulator during the first COVID lock down. 

2. We were just starting a program to build many differing plastic model aircraft with the Cadets of Rushmore Squadron when COVID struck. As COVID restrictions ease, we will restart our building program with the goal to present a “Civil Air Patrol Aircraft” display at the model show and competition, which is held at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum annually. I recently worked with a local retired airline pilot who had nearly 100 unbuilt “collector” grade older plastic aircraft kits. We plan to sell many of these kits at the model show this year with the profit being donated to SD Wing and Rushmore Squadron as a charitable contribution. Any remaining kits will be shared with all South Dakota squadrons to be built by cadets as aviation learning projects. I hope that this program will enhance cadet aerospace education for at least the next three years.   

3. In January of 2020, Lt. Col Howard Steiner and myself, with the approval of the Museum staff, modified a real world F-16 cockpit on display at at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum. We installed a flight simulator in the actual real world cockpit complete with side control stick, instrument panel populated with F-16 panel gauges, and having a large screen monitor to display the “out the window” scenery from anywhere in the world.  When either myself or Lt. Col Steiner is present, the simulator is available to be “flown” by any museum visitor. Anyone over 5 years old is invited to “fly an F-16” at no charge. We have had tremendous response to this program and provide 15 to 30 minutes of hands-on fun. We have had “pilots” from 5 to 80 years old who really enjoy the experience. The FSX simulator program we use allows us to launch the student “pilot of the moment” from their local airport anywhere in the world. This cockpit setting accompanied constant flight control instruction and is a real crowd-pleaser. We always take a few minutes to acquaint the student pilot with CAP programs and goals. I believe this program is one of the best received informational programs I have ever ever worked with. Unfortunately, COVID restrictions have interrupted this program for the last 1½ years. I hope to revive this experience during the summer of 2022.

4. The South Dakota Wing Wind Tunnel Project: In the early months of 2020, SD Wing DAE Maj. Tim Moode approached me with a request that I build a portable wind tunnel to be used Wing-wide as an Aerospace Education resource. Because I have no formal training in the very technical field of wind tunnel aerodynamics, initially I declined to take this project on. Major Moode is a persuasive and persistent leader, and in March of 2020, I set aside all other projects and began a six-week self-education effort to understand not only how to build a wind tunnel, but also to become familiar with the early work by researchers such as Newton and Bernoulli. Their work forms much of the basic foundation for aeronautical theory 300 years after their work became available to other researchers. Daniel Euler used their discoveries during his study of the higher mathematical problems he addressed during his lifetime. While none of these men studied aerodynamics per se, their work forms the foundation of much of the theory of flight as we know it today. You don’t have to understand all of this mathematical background to build a wind tunnel, but you do have to have a working knowledge of the theory and supporting math to be able to produce a working tool such as a wind tunnel. The study and preparation prior to starting construction was by far the most demanding part of the entire project.  And a bit of “good luck” became very important to the tunnel when a local industrial heating and air conditioning firm donated a used ¾ hp air handler which, by chance, proved to be the perfect “wind producers” for the South Dakota Wind Tunnel. During the build phase, I worked from 2 to 3 hours in the mornings, five days a week, for about 3 months. Much of it was trial and error work, with the emphasis on the “error” part! Various components had to be designed, integrated with the other construction work, and then occasionally discarded. I made nine 6-inch-by-8-inch fiberglass wing airfoils to be used in the demonstration of various aerodynamic forces. A supporting trapeze had to be designed and fitted into the duct used as the “tunnel” for the airflow.

Three months later we discovered that it worked quite well. Since that time, I have taken the tunnel and supporting equipment to the joint South Dakota – North Dakota Wing Encampment and spent an entire day teaching and guiding every cadet through an introduction to aerodynamics. We took the tunnel to the North Central Wing conference and the South Dakota Wing conference with very good reviews. We have gone to several squadron meetings across South Dakota and plan to continue all these travels in the future. We are in the planning stage for several presentations to non-CAP public groups in the future.

5. As an aside to my CAP academic activities, I audit one under-graduate or graduate level course per term at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology here in Rapid City. I have studied geology, organic chemistry, and atmospheric science over the years. This “Seniors” program is very inexpensive and the student takes no tests and gets no grade or credit – but it is a great way to keep your learning skill polished. This year the school started offering aviation courses, which are quite intense. I was in the Avionics course and the instructor noted that he understood that we had a wind tunnel. After some discussion, I was invited to present a one-hour talk on aerodynamics followed by a 2-hour hands-on lab experience using the wind tunnel. The students were mixed undergraduate and graduate students. It all went very well with many students staying late to further experiment with the tunnel. During the later portion of the hands-on section, the president of the school stopped by and was soon involved in "flying" the wings and “smoke rake” demonstrations. I learned that he, too, is a pilot and, was truly interested in the demonstration of the lift and stall characteristics of several differing airfoils. I believe that all personnel involved benefited from this experience. I was subsequently asked to join (as an ad hoc member) a student project design committee working on a real-life project building and installing a motorized piece of equipment to move the belly and chin turrets on a B-17 bomber on display in a museum in Georgia – and to make them move in a prototypical fashion for museum visitors.

I look forward to a long and varied life for the SD Wing Wind Tunnel. It is durable, easily usable, hands-on, quite transportable, and very interesting to learn with as a student and teach with as an instructor.   

I would be happy to share thoughts and hints that we struggled with during the wind tunnel build. Perhaps there is room for several wind tunnel projects within our organization.

Tell us about your medical career outside of Civil Air Patrol.  Why did you choose this career? 

When I was 17, it was a toss-up between becoming an Air Force pilot or going to medical school. I had hoped to attend the Air Force Academy but failed the physical because glasses were not allowed in those days. Hence, it was off to college, medical school, Residency in Pediatrics, and Fellowship in Pediatric Cardiology. My medical career was a life-long exciting, and challenging job. When your patient is a critically ill infant or child with heart disease, the job at hand becomes a “calling” and not a routine practice. Every moment counts – every decision is critical – every “outcome” must be good. I never gave up flying however. I am a Private Pilot, with Commercial, instrument, sailplane, ratings and all-but-check ride single engine float plane and multi-engine land ratings.  At 78 years of age, my pilot’s medical certificate is a thing of the past, and I devote my time to perfecting difficult instrument approaches in flight sim. Two partners and I owned and rehabilitated a very old Mooney aircraft during the 1980s. My memorable aviation events over the years are many and varied.  A few were a bit scary, but I would not have missed the aviation side of my life for anything.

What is the best advice you have for a new AE Officer working with cadets? 

Picking the right material and presenting it in a manner that is appealing to your students/audience is the single most important -- and clearly the most difficult -- factor in determining if you are a good teacher, and if your students are benefiting from your efforts. 

Please tell an anecdote of a rewarding experience working with cadets and/or students or teachers:

I am not a flight instructor, only a simulation operator. Nevertheless, I do have important insights to offer to cadets as they fly the CAP simulator. We have a young woman in our squadron who really wants to be an Air Force pilot. This cadet never misses a chance to fly the sim and learn something about aviation. She clearly has superior skills as a pilot, and even as a young teenager she is a very good sim pilot.  Recently, she came into the sim room and asked if she could fly. I asked if she had any instrument flight experience and she replied, “No.” So I set the sim weather up at 200 ft. ceiling and 1 mile visibility with no wind or precip. I offered a bit of advice on the takeoff but quickly stepped back to the role of surrogate ATC Voice. She followed all of the ATC instructions perfectly and set up the radios for an ILS approach at our local airport. She then flew a nearly perfect approach to minimums and landed without difficulty. I believe she demonstrated excellent flight skills. I believe that she will be an excellent pilot. This experience and many similar encounters have probably been the most important and satisfying activities in my CAP career. What better goal than to give a student a hand up as they grow in knowledge and maturity and what could be more satisfying than seeing them achieve their aviation goals?

Maj. Spangler and Rushmore cadets pose with South Dakota School of Mines and Technology representatives

Maj. Spangler, (third from right) with Rushmore Composite Squadron cadets and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology representatives.

Personal home flight simulator

Maj. Spangler built a personal home flight sim during the first COVID lockdown.

Spangler leads a slide presentation on  wing aerodynamics

Maj. Spangler leads a classroom lecture on wing aerodynamics.


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