Capt. Richard Rivera said retiring at NAS Kingsville was the perfect way to end his 25-year Navy career.
Rivera relinquished command of Training Air Wing Two to Capt. Brett Lassen and then retired in a June 21 ceremony. The wing commanding officer is traditionally called “commodore.”
“It’s interesting; my last two tours are where it all started – the Naval Academy, where I graduated, and here where I got my wings in ’97 with VT-22,” Rivera said.
Immediately before coming to the Kingsville wing, Rivera was the deputy commandant for midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“They gave me the choice between Meridian (Mississippi) and Kingsville,” he said.
“I picked Kingsville because I like the proximity to the town and how well received you are here.”
Although his experience as a student in Kingsville was good, being the commandant has been even better, Rivera said.
“I actually interact more with some of the people who care about us being here,” he said. “When I was a student, I was just trying to get through the training.
“I do understand now how valuable we are to the community and how valuable the community is to us. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Rivera said he’s faced a number of challenges in his career, but one the biggest was getting pilot training back on track to meet the timelines established by the Chief of Naval Air Training.
“When I showed up here, it wasn’t uncommon for guys and gals to get through the syllabus in about 65 weeks. It’s set for 52 weeks,” he said. “And for the most part, we are meeting or exceeding that in my last year, year and a half here.
“That’s probably my proudest accomplishment, because when I suggested to people sticking to the time for training, I was looked at sideways, like I was crazy.
“My goal here is to keep the students the main thing – that’s why we exist, that’s why the base exists – and to focus our attention on getting them to the fleet as quickly as possible.”
Rivera did take command during a challenging time.
“We’re still recovering from what happened two years ago,” he said.
In July 2017, Rivera assumed command of a training wing that had stopped flying in April. The Navy had ordered an “operational pause” on all T-45C flying following a series of physiological episodes such as hypoxia.
Naval Air Forces initiated some modifications to the T-45C, as well as training and reporting changes. Flying resumed initially with severe altitude and other restrictions and didn’t begin to get back to normal student pilot production until late 2017.
“NavAir has never found anything wrong with the aircraft,” Rivera said.
“What they did was take some measures to mitigate the risk by cleansing the system, by giving us a new system, by putting stuff into the system to rebuild the confidence of those flying the airplanes with more risk mitigation.
“Inherently this is a dangerous business. The more risk you can mitigate, the better for everyone. I thought that they did a great job to do what they could mitigate.”
Additional improvements are coming, including installation of a next-generation oxygen concentrator and an emergency oxygen backup system.
“So yeah, it was a lot of work,” he said. “I would say from about this time last year, in June, is when we really hit our stride – because there was concerted effort here and everywhere in the enterprise.
“You had the flying folks, the engineers, the base, the support personnel – everyone was focused on getting back to 100 percent. So that helps me get back on track.
“You can’t go from 100 to zero and back to 100 just like that. It’s a big organization, and it takes time.”
Navy flight training is based on successfully executing a series of training flights, referred to as “X’s.” Everyone has to learn to fly jets and land on carriers; strike students get additional training on things like formation flying, dogfighting and bombing.
“For us, it’s all about advancing X’s in the aircraft,” Rivera said. “The strike student has 133 advancing X’s in the aircraft they must achieve and the E-2/C-2 has 75.
“It’s all about scheduling as many sorties as possible to try to ensure that number is as high as possible, every single day. I don’t care about how many hours or the number of sorties, it’s all about advancing X’s.”
Training consists of both intermediate and advanced training.
Rivera compares intermediate to riding a bike – learning the basics of flying the T-45C.
“Those are the skills that they fall back on in advanced,” he said. “In advanced, what we teach them is the basics of how to tactically employ their aircraft in the future in the fleet.
“It is a building-block approach.”
Although he knows he accomplished a lot, Rivera said he’s not completely satisfied.
“I wish I could have done more,” he said.
“Every day is a new challenge, whether it’s Mother Nature, whether it’s birds, whether it’s a tough week for maintenance or Ops isn’t able to schedule based on resources that they have.
“I felt like I could have done more. I’m hoping that I leave it in better shape than what I got it, but it’s not going to look like that on paper. That’s for sure.”
His superiors likely disagree – the Chief of Naval Air Training, Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, presented Rivera with the Legion of Merit award at the change of command.
As for what comes next, Rivera’s family is moving back to Annapolis, Md., as he begins a second career.
“I’ve been lucky enough to get hired by Southwest Airlines, so I’m going to keep flying,” Rivera said.
“I’m not one for a desk job.”