When Capt. Rinehart Wilke IV relinquishes command of Naval Air Station Fallon this week and then prepares for his new assignment on the East Coast, a major part of him will still have a significant slice of the Silver State in his blood.
Capt. Leif E. Steinbaugh will become the new skipper of the sprawling high desert naval air station on Thursday afternoon.
Wilke, who will be wrapping up his third naval tour in Fallon, spent a total of nine years in Nevada. He married his wife, Melody, at Stateline, Nev., during his second tour, and his two youngest children, Taylor and Riley, were born in the state.
For Wilke, he said he will miss the community and the civilian employees who made his final tour to Nevada a memorable one. He said both the military personnel and civilian employees are very devoted to the mission of NAS Fallon.
“This is such a big organizational job,” Wilke explained. “I would characterize it as being a mayor of an installation within Churchill County. I don’t have the authority over all the folks here, but I have the responsibility for them.”
During Wilke’s first two tours at Fallon, he was assigned to the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center as both a student (his first assignment in 1996) and then as an instructor. As base commander, Wilke said his No. 1 priority was customer service, not only for the sailors assigned in Fallon but also for the various carrier air wings that came to the installation for training.
“We take care of sailors,” Wilke emphasized, when describing his leadership priorities.
Although the Department of Defense funds the day-to-day operations of NAS Fallon, Wilke said he does not receive additional money for visiting air wings. That’s when ingenuity becomes a major part of commanding. By working with his Fleet and Family Support and MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) staffs, Wilke said they are able to accommodate their visitors and make their trip to Fallon a pleasant one.
“It requires the staff to go beyond to support the transient sailors,” Wilke said.
From clerks assigning rooms to the recreation aide handing out a towel at the fitness center, Wilke said customer service is paramount at all levels.
Another goal Wilke undertook was hiring Dr. Nova Anderson, who formerly worked for the Nevada State Heath Division, to manage Fleet and Family Services. He calls Anderson a “phenomenal manager” who understands the psychological needs to support sailors and their families.
Also during his tenure as commanding officer, Wilke ramped up the emergency response training at NAS Fallon and also between the base and civilian agencies.
“Our emergency responders at NAS Fallon are all top-notch. Fire, security, EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) all work in conjunction with each other and with Search and Rescue,” Wilke said, adding that the base assets work well with the Fallon/Churchill Fire Department and local law enforcement.
Within a year of Wilke’s arrival, he had hired a training officer to execute training scenarios. A major drill occurred in early May 2011 when NAS Fallon and local agencies converged at Churchill County High School for a drill involving a downed in-flight refueling aircraft. Various agencies responded to treat people injured by the aftermath of the crash
The vision became reality six weeks later, though, when first-responders from both the base and Northern Nevada were called out after an 18-wheeler plowed into an Amtrak passenger train on June 24, 2011, 35 miles north of Fallon.
“Amtrak required us to shut down NAS Fallon’s airfield,” Wilke said. “We sent our firefighters, helicopters and a couple of security vehicles to the scene.”
Federal firefighters working with Fallon/Churchill eventually extinguished a fire that began after the collision, while Navy helicopters transported injured passengers and Amtrak crew members to local hospitals. Wilke said the first-responders performed brilliantly although seven people were killed.
Wilke said it was gratifying to be able to help the local community in a time of crisis.
It’s that type of cooperation between the base and community that has strongly impressed Wilke.
“I have seen the community support with NAS Fallon in a extremely positive manner,” Wilke pointed out. “The mayor and Churchill County Commissioners have all expressed their support to NAS Fallon.”
Wilke said he also sees the support from the sailors who volunteer for community events like Octane Fest or the Cantaloupe Festival or help coach a youth sports team. Likewise, Wilke took an active role as a member of the Fallon Rotary Club and occasionally spoke at Navy League meetings. The community response, though, impresses Wilke.
“There is not a community in America that supports the military as well as Churchill County and Fallon. The smallness of the community helps us,” Wilke added.
Wilke then re-emphasized the community’s commitment to the base. On his third day on the job as NAS Fallon’s commander in June 2010, Churchill County passed a resolution supporting the Navy on many levels.
“Churchill County’s economic development includes the Navy in their planning. We have included the county in our planning efforts,” Wilke said.
He said the base produces $580 million in economic output for three major counties including Churchill, Lyon and Washoe; furthermore, he said civilian employees who work at the installation are all local Nevadans.
“The military may be transient, but the civilians aren’t,” he said.
The base’s purpose and function have developed enormously since Wilke first arrived in Fallon 17 years ago after the Navy Fighter Weapons School (known as Top Gun) relocated to Fallon from the former Naval Air Station Miramar north of San Diego.
Wilke was in one of the first classes, TG-1, at NSAWC. During his second tour, NSAWC’s mission changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when two jets flew into the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon and the fourth into a field in western Pennsylvania.
“I get a call from 9th Air Force to start planning Operation Enduring Freedom … and they didn’t understand how carrier aviation could get to the fight 12 hours away,” Wilke recounted.
On Sept. 15, he and another naval officer arrived at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia to begin their mission.
Later, NSAWC teams began planning for Iraqi Enduring Freedom and for NATO operations to create a no-fly zone over Libya. Wilke said a 30-man deployment from NSAWC helped plan for the Libyan operations.
Fallon’s NSAWC fortified its reputation as being the center of naval aviation planning.
“This is the strategic center for gravity for naval aviation. This is where we teach all of our combat tactics and train all of our joint terminal air controllers,” Wilke said. “Northern Nevada is vital to the Navy’s ability to operate forward.”
Part of that success also centers on Wilke’s professional relationship with Rear Adm. Mark Vance, who retires from the Navy today after his change of command.
“Our relationship is very strong, and we get along great. We have a common vision how naval aviation defines itself,” Wilke said. “It’s easy to work with someone grounded in his beliefs.”
Wilke’s experience allowed him to also see NAS Fallon’s contribution to the operations by supporting NSAWC on a continual basis. Prior to his arrival to Fallon, Wilke logged 2,900 hours in the F-14 A/B/C and D Tomcat; 1,000 hours in the F/A-18 A/B/C/D/E and F Hornet while accumulating 820 carrier arrested landings.
He has been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (2), Strike/Flight Air Medal (2), Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (3), Navy Achievement Medal (3) and numerous unit, service, campaign medals and ribbons.
Wilke’s next assignment will take his family to Norfolk, Va., where he will serve as chief of staff for Carrier Strike Group 12 on the aircraft carrier USS Teddy Roosevelt. He will be the second-in-command to a one-star admiral.
Leaving won’t be easy for the Wilke. Taylor, who finished seventh grade, has been playing on a tournament softball team, and 1-year-old Riley is taking on her own personality.
“Riley, the youngest, is adorable,” Wilke said. “She oohs and awes when I walk in the room and then screams at me, “Hi, dada.’”
Wilke said the family will drive across the country, spending time camping and visiting some national parks.
He also keeps his three older adult children from his first marriage continually in his thoughts. His older son, Rinehart Wilke V, recently served in the U.S. Marines, and his other son, Thomas, is with the Marine Corps Supply Corps on the island of Okinawa. A daughter, Maison, lives in Maine and is studying therapy.
For the captain, though, leaving Nevada and his command assignment will be difficult. Wilke said he will miss flying over the mountains and gliding his jet across the azure blue sky of Northern Nevada. Recently, he took his ceremonial final flight.
“My last flight was in an F-5 … I took it out to Oroville (northern California) and back over the Sierra Nevada. It was gorgeous,” he described. “This is the greatest area to fly in all of America. Regrets? None. This is the greatest job in naval aviation, flying airplanes and getting to be in some place I love in Northern Nevada.”