Wilke made his mark on NAS Fallon, community | NevadaAppeal.com
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Wilke made his mark on NAS Fallon, community

By Steve Ranson Nevada News Group

They both shared a love of flying and serving their country. Their paths met before and during at Naval Air Station Fallon, a duty station they grew to love, and they both left the Oasis of Nevada at the same time in 2013.

Retired Rear Adm. Mark “Cyrus” Vance felt the void in talking about his friend and fellow aviator Retired Capt. Rinehart “Rhino” Wilke IV, who died May 11 after a valiant battle against cancer.

“Rhino (his pilot call sign) had sailors as well as civilians working for him at NAS Fallon,” Vance said. “He led them all, and he made it look easy. He was a hands on skipper and was able to relate to everybody that worked for him.”

Vance described the 56-year-old Wilke, the 30th base commander since 1944, as a type of commander who never sat in the background while others worked. He rolled up his sleeves.

PATHS CROSSED

As commander of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (formerly Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center), the Montana native served with Wilke for his entire tour in Fallon, but their paths previously crossed as F-14 Tomcat pilots.

“He and I were both in the Tomcat community and stationed on the East Coast,” Vance said. “Rhino was an exceptional pilot and a better leader. His tactical acumen in the air coupled with his calm demeanor made him a lethal Navy combat pilot. I would gladly have flown with Rhino anytime and anywhere.”

Wilke’s calmness extended into the day-to-day affairs at NAS Fallon, particularly in March 2012. Retired Capt. Carroll LeFon, 51, a popular aviator and military blogger who served several tours, died when his F-21 jet crashed into a small arms munition building. At the time of the crash, the weather was snowy and foggy with northeast winds gusting up to 30 mph and the temperature hovering near 31degrees.

“It was being flown by an ex-Navy pilot that we all knew well,” Vance recalled. “The weather turned terrible, and he was not able to land at either Fallon or Reno International. The jet ran out of gas overhead the field and crashed into one of the ammo bunkers at the edge of the base. When I went out to view the accident site, Rhino was on-scene and running the show. He was just that kind of leader and caring human being.”

As with LeFon and now with Wilke, Vance said Rhino’s loss will be felt by all those in the fighter community.

“The Silver State Club won’t ever be the same without Rhino pulling up a stool and holding court,” he said.

Activity at NAS Fallon in 2012 was also diverse and interesting. Then Vice President Joe Biden’s Air Force 2 diverted to NAS Fallon because of wind shears in Reno, and the motorcade was forced to make the 82-mile one-way trip to Galena High School. In May, Wilke had the opportunity to show off the base to a group of traveling Rotarians from Brazil.

Wilke’s tour as NAS Fallon’s commander was his second to the sprawling base, known as the hidden jewel in the desert. During his first tour from 2000-2002, Wilke ran Plans Programs and Tactics at NSAWC, and in June 2010, he assumed command in Fallon in June 2010. Wilke, who grew up in Ohio but attended Michigan State University, served as deputy chief of Plans and Operations for United States Central Command for three years. His final assignment after Fallon was chief of staff for Carrier Strike Group 12 in Norfolk, Va., until his retirement in 2015.

When he retired, Wilke had logged more than 2,900 hours in the F-14 and 1,000 hours in the F/A-18 and made more than 820 aircraft carrier landings. Wilke also earned numerous military honors including campaign medals, meritorious service and achievement medals and the Legion of Merit Medal.

LOVE FOR COMMUNITY

The news of Wilke’s death left Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford stunned. Not only did Tedford and Wilke discuss the relationship of the city and NAS Fallon, both also belonged to the Fallon Rotary Club. Their friendship extended well outside the air station’s fence line. Tedford said the relationship between the city and base grew, and Wilke wanted to be involved in the community. Wilke volunteered for Fallon Daily Bread and supported all four Northern Nevada Navy League councils in Reno, Carson City, Elko and Fallon. In his comments at the change of command ceremony, Wilke said the Fallon Chamber of Commerce and the base also worked together to bridge the ties between local businesses and the base.

Retired Vice Adm. Dixon R. Smith, who was commander of Navy Region Southwest, commended Wilke at his change of command ceremony and called NAS Fallon the best aviation facility in the Navy.

The crowd responded with loud applause, a tribute to Wilke and his staff’s leadership.

“I’m quite sad,” Tedford said. “I like Rhino a lot. I saw him in Rotary, and we talked quite a bit. He would come to the city with what they were doing at the base.”

Tedford said Wilke had concerns about aircraft flying too close to the city, but that and other issues were easily resolved.

“He was very concerned about our community when he was here,” Tedford said.

Over the years, Tedford has become close with NAS Fallon commanders, but when the Wilkes left Fallon in 2013, the mayor was sad to see them leave.

The feeling was mutual.

Wilke thanked the Fallon community in his closing remarks for its support, and he also recognized business and government leaders for their strong interest in the base’s success. He said the citizens of the community, Tedford and the county commissioners brought him into the community, and he responded.

Now, as he reflects on the captain’s life and contributions to Churchill County, Tedford said Wilke was too young to die from cancer.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the family at this time,” he said, his voice growing softer.

FRIENDSHIPS MADE IN ROTARY

Zip Upham, NAS Fallon’s public affairs officer, met Wilke during his first tour in Fallon.

“He was a great friend, a lot of fun to go skiing with,” Upham said. “He made skiing look easy.”

Yet it was a tie to the Fallon Rotary Cub that made Wilke an ardent community supporter. Upham said Wilke participated in many events including the local Dancing With the Stars, a fundraiser for young dancers. In one newspaper account, Wilke proclaimed having “happy feet” to scare the competition. When Brazilian Rotary members arrived in Fallon for a few days, Upham said the base’s skipper showed the visitors the flight line on a Sunday afternoon and answered questions. He remembers the delegates’ excitement when meeting pilots.

“Rhino had a sense of pride with the ability to fly and defend the United States,” Upham recalled. “That was in his blood.”

Mel Foremaster, a civilian technical instructor with NSAWC, was responsible for the acquisition of new equipment and also for asking aviators to assist him with test runs.

“I needed an aviation subject expert, and I brought him (Wilke) in as a lead,” Foremaster said adding the testing helped aviators later in their careers.

When he was in Fallon from 2000-2002, Wilke served as he was the head of Plans Programs and Tactics but after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Foremaster said Wilke deployed to Saudi Arabia for 10 days as director of Operations for Operation Enduring Freedom. When he wasn’t overseas, Foremaster said he and Wilke discussed various topics pertinent for a young officer.

During Wilke’s stay in Fallon, he met a former enlisted intelligence specialist who had left the Navy and began working for a civilian contractor on a mission planning system. Nevada also held another special place in Wilke’s heart before he left the state for the first time. He and Melody Ritchie married at Stateline.

Eight years later the Wilkes retuned to Fallon, and Foremaster persuaded the new base commander to join Rotary.

“He liked the mission of Rotary and the Rotary Foundation,” Foremaster said. “He did a lot to help with the youth program with Nancy Upham. He was very active.”

Both Mel and his wife Barbara became close to the Wilkes, and the couples had dinner together or attended functions. The Foremasters attended the Wilke’s wedding at Lake Tahoe. The Foremasters and Wilkes kept in contact via Facebook, and once three years ago the Foremasters met Rhino for dinner in Washington, D.C., where he was taking a class at Georgetown University.

Even when Wilke left Fallon after his tour ended, he remained active in Rotary and joined an eClub for individuals who couldn’t attend meetings. Foremaster said the eClub was established in the United States and other countries.

Foremaster’s tone turned more solemn. He first learned of Rhino’s illness last year.

“Mel reached out to me in September when he got sick,” he said.

During Rhino’s treatment, there were times when he improved, but during the last six months, Foremaster said the naval aviator had a tough life.

“But what a strong guy. He never gave up,” Foremaster said.” Mel did an awesome job (taking care of Rhino).”

Kelly Brye, president of Carpet King Interiors & Design in Fernley, knew Wilke through the eClub. He said the eClub in Virginia had a number of members who had lived in Fallon. Three years ago Brye and Wilke attended training seminars in San Jose, Calif, and Brye said they spent time together there discussing Rotary and after they returned to their respective homes.

“It was good to get to know him,” Brye said. “He was a great person.”

MAKING AN IMPACT

Current NAS Fallon commander Capt. Evan Morrison first met Wilke when they served together at NSAWC. They also lived around the corner from each other in Fernley and spent time together socializing.

“I flew with him quite a bit,” said Morrison, an E-2 Hawkeye pilot who flew the airborne early warning and battle management aircraft. He later cross-trained to the F/A-18 Hornet at Fallon.

Morrison said Wilke instructed him in the initial basic fighter maneuvers course which pits one aircraft against another aircraft in air-to-air combat training.

“He had the time and patience to train the new guy,” Morrison said, adding Wilke also had the calmness to teach him about the Hornet.

Now, as the base commander, Morrison said it’s an honor to be in that leadership succession that included Wilke’s three-year tour.

“Hopefully, I carry on like he did and keep us going with the training to get pilots reading for deployments,” he added.

Training Officer Chris Pierce said he wouldn’t be where he’s at if it weren’t for Wilke and his support. Pierce said Wilke and his executive officer, retired Cmdr. Otto Sieber, trusted his decisions.

“Rhino laid the foundation for training success at NAS Fallon,” Pierce pointed out, citing the commander’s leadership and decision-making qualities.

During Wilke’s second-year in Fallon, the base, many community assets and government agencies conducted in May a real-world scenario, “Operation Arco.” The exercise focused on a jet crash near Churchill County High School and simulated the transport of injured students to Banner Churchill Community Hospital and Renown Medical Center in Reno.

The drill and lessons learned in 2011 evolved into a real-world response six weeks later when a big rig slammed into an Amtrak passenger train 33 miles north of Fallon near Trinity, killing seven people. NAS Fallon and agencies from western and Northern Nevada descended on the scene in what turned out to be the worst modern-day train disaster in Nevada history.

“It was that ‘out of the box thinking’ that prepared us for the Amtrak incident,” Pierce said at the time. “‘The heck with simulating,’ Wilke would say, ‘Let’s do it for real ….’”

FACTBOX

Wilke is survived by his wife Melody Ritchie Wilke; five children, Rinehart McLelland Wilke, V, Charles David Wilke, Maison Christine Wilke Herzog, Taylor Trinity Wilke, and Riley Love Wilke; granddaughter, Hayden Olivia Wilke; mother, Dorothy Sue Wilke; father, Rinehart McLelland Wilke, III, and wife, Diane Wilke; sister, Lisa Wilke Brown; brothers, Robert Wilke, David Wilke; step-sister Angela Hanson; step-brothers Bruce Hanson, Greg Follmer, and Todd Follmer and many loving nieces and nephews. 

A funeral service was conducted Saturday. Burial will be in Arlington National Cemetery at a later date. In lieu of flowers, a request is for donations to be made to the #Rhinostrong GoFundMe supporting the family. https://www.gofundme.com/f/rhinostrong. Condolences may be offered to the family at http://www.hollomon-brown.com.