State geologists teamed with the Civil Air Patrol over the weekend on reconnaissance flights around Mount Hood, a dual mission to study landslides on the volcano's unstable slopes and train for possible future volcanic activity.

The flights Thursday through Sunday were part of an effort by the Oregon Wing of the Civil Air Patrol to expand its activities beyond traditional search and rescue and medical support missions to include science and response to natural disasters.

In planes from its fleet of six specially equipped Cessna 182s, the Civil Air Patrol flew geologists from the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries over strategic locations on Mount Hood. Other planes participated at the same time in other training missions.

Ian Madin, chief scientist at the state agency, said the flights gave the geologists remarkable access to the high slopes of Mount Hood, which are reshaped annually by debris flows that can race far down the mountain. The flights allowed researchers to photograph some of those recent debris flows up close for study.

They also represented a test run for how geologists would respond to volcanic activity on Mount Hood, which last erupted in the 1790s. Even minor volcanic activity could begin a catastrophic cascade by melting snow and ice into a fast-moving flow called a lahar.

"It doesn't take a catastrophic Mount St. Helens, blow-the-top-off type of eruption to cause problems," Madin said. "It only takes a little activity to melt snow and ice and start things moving."

Although lahars are one risk, another is posed by debris dams that could form on the mountain's slopes after an eruption and then break open, loosing more flows. Flights to find such dams would be critical after any volcanic activity, Madin said.

State Geologist Vicki McConnell said the Mount Hood flights mark the start of a partnership between her agency and the Civil Air Patrol. Similar flights could be valuable after big storms, like the one that swept into Oregon in December, to identify areas at risk of storm-caused debris flows, she said.

For instance, water and debris pooled for days before it broke loose and swept down hills west of Clatskanie, severing U.S. 30.

A U.S. Air Force inspection team monitored the weekend's Civil Air Patrol training flights as part of a test of its response capabilities, said Lt. Col. Thomas Traver, public affairs officer for the Oregon wing.

The wing flew 20 flights, each lasting about two hours, Traver said. Two planes were dedicated to the flights.

The Civil Air Patrol is a national volunteer auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, with more than 550 single-engine search and rescue aircraft and more than 55,000 members. The weekend flights operated from the Civil Air Patrol's command center at the Aurora airport.