Capt. Steve McAlearney, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Key West, on Wednesday provided members of the Key West Chamber of Commerce with an update about current happenings at the naval station, one of Monroe County's largest employers.
"I've been here in this post since June," McAlearney said by way of introducing himself and his family to the audience at the Westin Key West Resort and Marina. "But I had trained here eight or nine times as a naval aviator. I'm the fighter pilot who is a result of the training grounds provided at NAS Key West."
McAlearney emphasized his and his family's happiness at their current assignment, and he compared his hour-and-45-minute commute to the Pentagon last year to the few minutes he now drives along South Roosevelt Boulevard watching the sunrise.
"This was our first choice without a doubt," he said, showing photos of his wife and two sons enjoying the island's fishing and water sports.
Turning to more serious business, McAlearney emphasized NAS Key West's dual mission of both operational and training requirements, meaning the facility is equipped to teach pilots and other sailors and also react defensively or offensively if needed.
"Although I don't think we'll have another Cuban Missile Crisis to deal with down here, we are still uniquely positioned here for operations in the Caribbean, Central and South America," he said, adding that one of the Navy's first roles in Key West involved antipiracy campaigns.
Antipiracy still exists today, although the villains now are drug smugglers and human traffickers.
"But shortly after the Wright brothers got airborne, we were flying planes in and out of Key West," McAlearney said.
He ticked off the numbers of Naval Air Station Key West, which has an annual budget of about $47 million and supports a total of 5,500 people, a number that includes military and civilian workers and their families.
"We're one of the largest employers in the Keys, and as such we're really like a small city," he said.
The navy's fire rescue divisions have a mutual aid agreement with Key West and Monroe County when it comes to emergency situations, and the military's drug and bomb-sniffing dogs will be on hand Saturday to check out the Fantasy Fest parade floats for explosives, he said.
"We certainly mix our resources, so that if a hurricane or mass migration occurs, we'll be well-equipped to handle it," he said.
Local navy operations contribute about $636 million and 6,000 jobs to the local economy every year, with an estimated 50 percent of personnel renting homes from the private sector.
"We pay out about $94 million a year in salaries, and many of our employees and dependents take a second job within the local economy," McAlearney said.