The Man Behind the Mission

Capt. Michael P. Connor leans against the railing of the Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville air traffic control tower, overlooking the unfolding day-to-day activities of the Southeast Region’s largest naval installation. The airfield is fairly quiet on this overcast mid-June morning, though annually it witnesses more than 80,000 takeoffs and landings.

Naval aircraft have accented the skies over Jacksonville for nearly 80 years now. Downtown Jacksonville rises against the skyline across the St. Johns River, a reminder of the ever-evolving relationship between the River City and the nation’s third-largest naval air station.

With more than 100 tenant commands, 15 operational aviation squadrons, and command centers aplenty, the base is a hive of activity. Folio Weekly was granted a rare opportunity to get to know the man behind the mission: NAS Jacksonville Commanding Officer Capt. Michael Connor.

The former F/A-18 Hornet pilot has an easy smile and a calm demeanor. He’s passionate about aviation (both civilian and military) and his wife of 20 years, Cristin. He can’t get enough CrossFit—he has participated in four competitions so far. He’s incredibly proud of the Naval Air Station and is honored to serve as the base’s commanding officer, though he misses flying jets.

“I miss the dynamic nature of the missions that we did,” he tells Folio Weekly, “pulling seven Gs during dogfighting, 1V1 maneuvering, going out on a range and practicing delivery of ordnance, shooting the 20 mm [Gatling] gun. Every day was different. Every mission was different. The camaraderie of a fighter squadron is hard to explain, but when you’re in it there’s a very close-knit group of guys and girls who work very hard to achieve a very high level of professionalism and skills. It was very rewarding.”

One of three boys raised by a schoolteacher and a nurse, the New Hampshire native fell in love with aviation at a young age. Connor’s older brother flew small aircraft out of their hometown grass-strip airport before he was old enough to drive a car.

“As most boys probably [do], you look up to your older bother, and I thought he was very cool, maybe more so because he was flying planes,” Connor recalls. “I think that’s where I got my inspiration to be a pilot. I wanted to be like my older brother and fly planes. Living near an Air Force base and going to air shows every summer—seeing the exciting machines and planes, seeing the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds—made me want to be a military aviator, and so I pursued that.”

Connor’s inspiration to join the Navy was more … cinematic. A popular Hollywood action film featuring a hotshot Navy jet pilot made an impression on him.

“I originally wanted to go into the Air Force,” he explains, “but a lot of my peers in my age group, while they might not admit it, a lot of us saw Top Gun and wanted to be Navy fighter pilots flying off aircraft carriers. That’s how I ended up going toward the Navy.”

After graduating from the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Connor earned his Wings of Gold in 1996 and served as a flight instructor at Training Squadron 21, flying the T-45A Goshawk at NAS Kingsville, Texas. He moved to Jacksonville (for the first time) in 1998 to complete F/A-18 Hornet training at the former NAS Cecil Field with the Strike Fighter Squadron 106 Gladiators.

“What stands out the most was that I met my wife, Cristin, during my time in Jacksonville,” said the captain, visibly brightening. “Aside from flying front-line, Navy fighter aircraft, I would say the most exciting point during that time was meeting her.”

After graduating from the prestigious United States Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) in July 2001, the young jet pilot steadily climbed the ranks, spending much of his career in Lemoore, California. Connor also served as assistant chief of staff for operations for the Battle Force Seventh Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan before being selected as a base commander.

Warm weather and proximity to family made NAS Jacksonville his No. 1 choice. He served as executive officer under Capt. Sean Haley before becoming NAS Jacksonville’s 48th commanding officer, in April 2018.

The Naval Air Station has witnessed many technological advances, international conflicts and generations of servicemen and women since it was officially commissioned in 1940: the Blue Angels were born here; the first African-American pilot, Jesse Brown, earned his Wings of Gold here; another famous pilot stationed at NAS Cecil Field was flown back to NAS Jacksonville after five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam—his name was John McCain.

From the Grumman JF-2 Duck, the single-engine amphibious biplane used through World War II—and the very first plane assigned to the air station—to today’s state-of-the-art MH-60 Romeo and P-8A Poseidon, NAS Jacksonville continues to be a major player in military aviation. Situated on close to 4,000 acres on the St. Johns and Ortega Rivers, the base hosts seven active duty VP squadrons flying the P-8A Poseidon, three reserve squadrons, four helicopter squadrons, and one MQ-4C Unmanned Aircraft System Triton squadron. The base supports a workforce of 20,000 military members, civilians and contractors with a payroll of $2.7 billion. NAS Jacksonville is one of the Navy’s largest and fastest-growing installations.

“We are very much of operational and strategic importance to the Navy and to the region,” Connor said. “My number one responsibility, my number one duty, is to make sure this installation is safe and protected. I’m responsible for the force protection for all our military members, our civilians, our dependents that live on base, all the assets on the base, the aircraft that are on our flight line, our facilities and so forth. My number one mission is to keep the installation safe and secure from anybody who would want to do harm.”

NAS Jacksonville’s mission statement is to sustain, enable, and support warfighter readiness—something Connor takes seriously.

Our mission is to enable the fleet to do their missions: to make sure the runways are open, to make sure air traffic control facilities are operational, to make sure that
they have the facilities they need, hangars, electricity and water,” Connor said. “[Our mission is to make sure] the warfighters that are here—the sailors, the Marines—have what they need to be successful in terms of fitness facilities, in terms of galley and housing, and making sure they’ve got services available to them to increase their morale and quality of life through Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs, sailor services, our marina, etc. [We also make sure] that the families are supported and have what they need to improve their quality of life through MWR programs, through Fleet and Family Support, childcare and youth activities.”

When asked about his greatest accomplishment as commanding officer, Connor brushes off the question, preferring instead to recognize the achievements of the base and the men and women stationed there.

“Two things come to mind that I’m most proud of with the installation,” he said. “Number one: the installation’s response to the Miami Air crash a little over a month ago. We had an incident that happened at the worst possible time. It was a late Friday night and [I am impressed with] how quickly everybody got to the base and got to setting things into motion to respond. The first response from the fire department and security [was stellar]. I think that’s one of the things all base commanders worry about: How is the team going to respond when an actual crisis happens? Everyone who was involved responded professionally and obviously we had a very good result.”

“Secondly, the installation was recognized this year as the best air station in the Navy. Installations around the world compete for the CNIC (Commander, Navy Installations Command) Installation Excellence Award. We compete at the regional level—Region Southeast, which is the largest region in the Navy, from South Carolina down to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Texas. There are 18 installations alone in the Southeast. So then you compete at the CNIC level. We were runner-up for that award behind Naval Base San Diego. We’re currently recognized as the best air station in the Navy and it takes a lot of effort by everybody on the installation to perform the way we perform day in and day out.”

Over the past decade, the installation has built state-of-the-art hangars and continues to work toward reducing its environmental impact. There are plenty of challenges, including maintaining and modernizing base infrastructure that was built in the 1940s. As the Navy and its missions evolve—particularly in the era of unmanned flight operations—Connor foresees the base’s role and its local economic impact expanding.

Florida is one of the most military-friendly states in the nation, boasting 20 major military installations and more than 1.5 million veterans. The defense industry is the fourth largest contributor to Florida’s economy, accounting for 801,000 jobs and an economic impact of $84.9 billion. Many military retirees choose to call the Sunshine State home. Altogether, 150,000 active duty servicemembers, dependents and retirees live in the immediate Jacksonville area.

“I think the community’s support for the military is outstanding,” the commanding officer said. “I’ve lived in a number of states and the support that we get from the city, from the state, is outstanding. I think that the state and the city tout themselves as the most military-friendly. It’s easy to say that, but I know they back it up with their actions and things that they do to support the military. It’s very nice to live in a community that supports your mission.”

Connor is thankful for companies that hire veterans, businesses that show support for servicemembers through military discounts, and community support for organizations such as the USO.

“When sailors leave the military, whether they separate at the end of their service or whether they retire, a very large majority of them decide to stay in Florida, stay in the Jacksonville area,” Connor says, “and so there’s a huge workforce that’s highly skilled, professional and disciplined that are available for civilian companies.”

He also recognizes the importance of ongoing community relations and encourages servicemembers to be part of their community and give back however they can while stationed here.

“We put a big focus on volunteerism for sailors, so they do a lot of volunteer hours in the community, from coaching Little League to supporting [organizations like the] Clara White Mission,” Connor said.

Serving as commanding officer of one of the Navy’s largest installations has been a great finale to this accomplished naval aviator’s career. He may not fly high-speed missions these days, but Connor loves what he does. When he isn’t occupied with official duties, he enjoys flying the P-8A Poseidon and civilian aircraft with the base’s Navy Flying Club.

“It’s been great getting back into general aviation,” he said. “VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flying has been just a lot of fun, taking friends and family up flying and giving them a tour of the area.”

Connor is looking forward to retirement in the near future and having more time to fly as a civilian pilot. He’s not done yet, though. Over the coming months, he plans to continue improving the base, servicemembers’ quality of life, and community relations.

“At NAS Jacksonville, all the employees—the sailors, the civilians, the contractors—work tirelessly to provide the very best service to the nation, to the Navy, and to the community. We very much recognize the importance of good community relationships between the base and the local community, and one of our main areas of focus is growing those relationships, improving those relationships, and seeking out new relationships that better NAS Jacksonville and better the community.”