Navy's top combat flier in line to head Naval Academy

'68 alumnus has taught `top gun,' fighter crews

May 02, 2002|By Ariel Sabar and Tom Bowman | Ariel Sabar and Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

Rear Adm. Richard J. Naughton, the Navy's top trainer of combat pilots, is the Defense Department's choice to be the U.S. Naval Academy's next superintendent, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

If formally nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate - both considered likely - Naughton would take over the prestigious officer-training college at a time of stability and renewed purpose. He would succeed Vice Adm. John R. Ryan, who is retiring.

Naughton, 55, is a 1968 academy graduate and commander of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, a Nevada base that trains combat air crews, including the "top gun" pilots of movie renown and the fighter crews who have carried out campaigns over Afghanistan.

Spokesmen for the Pentagon and a Naval Academy spokesman would not confirm or deny Naughton's selection.

Naughton said yesterday that he knew he was among three finalists but had not heard anything since his interview with top Navy officials a month ago.

"If it works out, terrific," he said in a phone interview. "It would be a great honor to go back and make a difference with the future naval officers.

"It's a daunting challenge but one that I would welcome and think I would enjoy."

Ryan is retiring next month, after four years at the academy, to become president of the State University of New York Maritime College. Superintendents generally serve three to four years.

Pentagon officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sent Naughton's name this week to President Bush, who will have to make a nomination before Ryan's expected departure June 7.

Naughton's selection would cap a 37-year career in the Navy that began when the teen-ager from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, entered the gates of Annapolis in 1964, a time of growing social upheaval at home and of escalating conflict in Vietnam.

"He was a mild-mannered midshipman who seemed to accomplish his goals without ever putting a hell of a lot of sweat or work into his life," the 1968 yearbook states under a picture of a confident young man with a striking gaze.

After graduation, he became a naval flight officer. He flew in the back seats of F-4 and F-14 fighter jets and had risen by January 1991 to the command of the USS New Orleans, an amphibious assault ship that landed Marines in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf war and swept Kuwait's harbors for mines.

He assumed a public profile for the first time in the late 1990s, when he gave media interviews to defend the Navy's controversial use of the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico, as a bombing range. He said the alternative training grounds that the Navy had been pressured to use were hurting readiness. He also told reporters: "The No. 1 thing that would make Saddam Hussein happy would be to parade an American fighter pilot down the streets of Baghdad."

The new superintendent, who oversees 4,000 midshipmen, 2,300 employees and a $194 million budget, will take over amid relative tranquillity.

There have been no major repeats of the cheating, drug and sex scandals that embarrassed the school in the 1990s; its private fund-raising arm collected record sums last year; and the number of applicants climbed sharply since the late 1990s after a decade of decline.

The job, however, is not without challenges. The academy faces a severe shortage of active-duty officers qualified to teach at the school and has had to focus more than ever on marketing and fund raising to compete against other elite colleges for students - an effort the academy terms its "war for talent."

Naughton, who is married and has an adult son, was selected from a group of about 23 three-star admirals and 46 two-star admirals eligible for the post.

The other finalists, said defense officials, were Rear Adm. Goerge E. Voelker, the Navy's recruiting chief and an early favorite, and Rear Adm. Albert T. Church III, a senior budget official at the Pentagon.

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