With the installation he served sprawled out below him, NAS Patuxent River Commanding Officer Capt. Christopher Cox will close another chapter in his naval career as he stands outside on the catwalk of the Air Traffic Control Tower before an intimate gathering of Sailors, family, and well-wishers, and turns over command of the air station to Executive Officer Capt. John Brabazon Sept. 17.
The 12-story tall Air Traffic Control Tower location for Cox’s change of command ceremony is a respectful nod to naval aviation – a subject that has fascinated him since boyhood.
The start of a career
Crediting movies, air shows, and growing up close to big airports in the Los Angeles basin for his early interest in flying, Cox applied to the U.S. Naval Academy with the goal of becoming an aviator. It was, perhaps, a more rigorous curriculum than he first anticipated.
“Like the T-shirts say, ‘It’s not college,’” Cox joked. “You get a college degree, but it’s more than school. It’s a ton of academics, part vocational training and part professional training. It doesn’t seem that much fun sometimes while you’re there, but the longer you stay in the Navy you appreciate how well it prepared you for many of the things you’ll be called on to do during your career.”
Cox graduated from the academy in 1995 with a B.S. in Marine Engineering and went on to flight school where he was winged a Naval Flight Officer in 1997. His first operational sea tour was flying the S-3B Viking with the Diamondcutters of Sea Control Squadron (VS) 30 in Jacksonville, Florida, from 1998 to 2001. What followed were carrier deployments and a lot of flying, embarked time, and deployed time – what Cox summed up as “exciting stuff, great missions and great experience.”
But the S-3 community was destined to go away, and in 2001 when the Navy came up with the Sundown Transition for the S-3 community, Cox had to make a decision.
“You could decide to stay to do a department head tour in S-3s, or apply to transition early for a chance to do a DH tour in a new community, so I opted to transition early,” Cox said. “I was selected to transition to the [Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft] community and got to go on and continue flying different types of P-3 aircraft in VQ and VPU squadrons.
Following his command tour, Cox would go on to study the Aircraft Industry and graduate from the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy where he completed his Joint Staff Officer qualification and an M.S. in National Resource Strategy. That was followed by a Pentagon tour in OSD Policy before reporting to NAS Patuxent River as its Executive Officer in 2017.
“I knew a little about Pax River from my time on the Joint Staff when I was in the J8 – which is an acquisition directorate – and from working on system modifications and testing in the VQ and VPU squadrons,” Cox noted. “I knew how the big pieces were supposed to work, but had never been this close to it before.”
Pax River accomplishments, memories, thanks
Cox took command of Pax River April 11, 2019 after serving 18 months as executive officer, a position that falls under the Navy’s Fleet-Up program.
“With the array of things you deal with at Pax, it really feels like what running a small town, and some of its businesses, must be like,” Cox said. “More than 20,000 people work and live here; there is housing, shopping, utilities like water, sewer, electricity, parks and recreation activities. There’s road maintenance, police, fire, public safety and services, and two airports to operate.”
In fact, Pax River’s Trapnell Airfield and Air Operations Division is something Cox is willing to brag about.
“Our air traffic control covers a huge swath of airspace,” he said. “We’re right next to D.C. and control a large chunk of that National Capital Airspace. If you’ve flown into and out of D.C. in bad weather, or up and down the east coast in bad weather, you’ve been controlled by Pax River controllers. We play a large part in the National Airspace System, which was something I didn’t know before coming here.”
During his time at Pax River, Cox says he did his best to stay focused on the big themes.
“Security is job one, followed by taking care of the airfield – because that’s why we’re here – then attending to the needs of our tenant commands, because their mission is our mission,” Cox explained. “We invested in the airfield [by repairing and improving both primary runways and many taxiways] so that we can provide a durable asset for many years to come.”
But Cox added a fourth focus he believes is also important to the mission – Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR).
“In the Navy, MWR is the only lever we have to directly invest in our people’s quality of life,” he added. “My getting more attention onto the MWR quality of life programs is one of the bigger shifts I’m proud of. The high level DoD and Navy Instructions describe MWR programs as non-pay compensation; part of our military benefits. And sometimes those smaller things can make a big difference. Maybe we can’t build the big new complex, but we can do better with what we have – like adding the new [Navy Operational Fitness and Fueling System] course in the Drill Hall, expanding our capacity for some childcare programs, or consolidating and adding to our outdoor recreation programs by creating the new Fun Zone.”
Another accomplishment he’s proud of is his part in the Inter-Governmental Service Agreement (IGSA) with St. Mary’s County, which allowed the Navy to work with the county to complete some smaller road works and repair projects that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise due to capacity constraints in NAVFAC and the Public Works Department.
“I helped draft our current IGSA while I was the XO, and though I didn’t get to sign it, I did get to fully utilize our authorities in it as the CO,” Cox said. “And it’s a rare treat to be able to reap the rewards of your efforts during the same tour, because most things take so long to become reality.”
As with NAS commanding officers before him, Cox also recognized the unique relationship Pax River has with its surrounding community, and he understands why.
“About two-thirds of the people who work on base live in St. Mary’s or Calvert Counties,” he said. “Once you start looking at the demographics, you realize it’s not an ‘us vs. them’ situation; we are them. Our relationship is great, very tight. Some of it is personal – like attending school graduations and community events – and some of it is alliance partnerships. We have deliberate meetings with county commissioners to have public forums to discuss matters of interest, and there are a lot of community outreach projects from our various tenant commands and departments. A lot of credit goes to my predecessors who’ve built and maintained those relationships over the years. It’s been easy to keep on going with what works very well. It’s a very close, cooperative relationship, and I’m very appreciative of that.”
Cox’s office is located in building #409, a location that has always housed the base commanding officer since the base was constructed in 1943. When asked about his fondest memories of his time at Pax River, other than briefly mentioning the gorgeous scenery that surrounds the air station, it’s no surprise the rest involve aircraft.
“The distinct thumping sound of the Osprey and the thundering of the JSF (F-35 Joint Strike Fighter),” Cox said, smiling. “You can feel the pounding in the walls, especially in an old timber building like this one. You can get a good feel of what’s flying by just by listening.”
The U.S. Naval Test Pilot School also gets a shout out from Cox, who affectionately refers to it as “a bit of a flying circus.”
“I say it in the fondest sense because they’ve got one of the oddest collections of planes in the Navy, and not just because of their Army aircraft. Classic warbirds periodically visit, they fly piston powered tail draggers, helicopters, gliders with no engines, and F-18s with big engines,” he said. “If you’ve been a lifelong fan of aviation, TPS is an incredible place to be near. It’s like watching a different air show every day. At Pax River, almost any aircraft in the world can be seen flying around here at some point.”
As for Pax River’s personnel, Cox refers to them as “some of the best men and women in defense.”
“It takes each person doing their part to the greatest of their ability, so everyone else can focus on doing their part,” he said. “It’s a team. Whether you’re doing back office admin work, inventing new things in a lab, securing our gates, flying an aircraft, or controlling the airspace that planes fly in, everyone has their part and they play it well. That’s how we can maintain the advantage we need in our Navy. And I thank them all for doing it.”
When asked what advice he would give to the incoming commanding officer, Cox said he would tell him he is ready to assume command, and he has all the tools he needs to take our team’s performance to the next level.
“We have a great set of people here with all sorts of talent who want to do all sorts of things and it just has to be unleashed, enabled or empowered,” Cox said. “All the potential energy and skill is there and you can do anything you want to do. That’s something you learn in aviation, where you routinely do dangerous things safely — that you can do anything if you research it, learn it, prepare correctly for it, identify your goals and come up with a plan to get there. Capt. Brabazon and I share a similar vision and goals, and a focus on the long game to make sure we’re doing things that help accomplish the Navy’s strategic goals.”
Writing the next chapter
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Cox’s change of command ceremony will not include the traditional crowds or pomp and circumstance, but he’s okay with that.
“I’ve always thought that ‘doing’ was more important than ‘being’, and the big change of command ceremonies always seemed to me to honor the being instead of the doing part,” he opined. “But I will miss some of the social interaction, the relationships, and the opportunity to spend time bidding farewell to all of our Pax Pros in person.”
After relinquishing command of Pax River, Cox will report to his next duty station at Commander, Navy Installations Command (CNIC) onboard the Washington Navy Yard in D.C.
“I looked at what I can do in the next job and asked myself if I could contribute,” he said. “I’ll be in the N3, working on enterprise-wide airfield and port ops issues.”
Cox intends to remain living locally, offering some stability for his wife and two high school-aged children.
“Part of our desire to come to Pax River in the first place was having the opportunity for a follow-on tour locally or in D.C.,” Cox noted. “We’ve moved about 15 times in the past 25 years. Once our kids were in high school, we didn’t want to move them around if we could avoid it. Stability is very important for our family’s sake. We’ll stay in the same house, the kids will be able to stay in the same school, and my wife will be able to keep her same job. I’ll just be turning left instead of right and driving the other way for whatever the next tour has in store for me.”