By Dolly Rairigh Glass
Captain Erik “Rock” Etz joined the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division leadership team in June as the new Executive Officer, replacing Capt. Wes Naylor, who assumed duties as Commanding Officer. Etz and his wife, and two daughters, made the transition to Orlando, coming from southern Maryland.
“We moved down about the middle of April, and have already enjoyed visits from all our immediate family members and friends from all parts of the country,” Etz said. “Over the last few years, we’ve vacationed here quite a bit, either at the Disney parks or on the coast, and really liked it here. Frankly, when I was looking at options for this period in my career, this was the only job for which I put my name in the hat. This is an outstanding team executing an important mission, in an amazingly supportive community.”
“I just feel blessed I was selected and now I’m here to give back and serve the team,” Etz said. “I think we’re going to grow some deep roots.”
Etz grew up in Germantown, Maryland, an area rich with great parks and museums, and today, his parents still live in the same neighborhood he did as a boy. He feels lucky that he has done a number of tours throughout the course of his career in the Patuxent River area, which is close by, and with two of his three sisters also relocating back to the area, they took advantage of the close proximity and appreciated several opportunities for spending time with family.
But growing up in that area, it wasn’t the museums and history that interested Etz the most, instead he was drawn to the outdoors, things like camping and canoeing, and was an active Boy Scout. He attained Eagle Scout level, taking on the clean up of a local stream in Germantown, and spent an entire summer focused on the health of the stream: cleaning it up and monitoring the aquatic life in the stream before, during and after the project.
“I don’t recall that we proved there were any significant changes in the stream health with regard to the project,” he said, “but we hauled out a lot of trash and certainly helped out the community.”
Both of his parents were chemists for the government, his father at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and his mother at the National Institutes of Health. “When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to his office, which had a lab full of lasers. For a little kid, that was really cool!”
As his high school’s valedictorian, Etz carefully considered his options, and his desire to serve in some fashion, and he applied for, and was awarded, an ROTC scholarship at Stanford University.
After four years, he earned his Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, and with a desire to fly, he applied and was accepted to the pilot program, going right from Stanford to Pensacola to start the flight school process. After a couple of years of flight school, he was selected to fly F/A-18’s. “It was a combination of a little luck, timing and hard work,” he said, “and I have had the wonderful opportunity to fly F/A-18’s for most of my 24-year career.”
“I’ve always loved flying,” said Etz. “Flying an advanced fighter, like an F/A-18, you obviously have the sense of flying, but you’re managing weapon systems and various sensors, so it is work. But in amongst the work and the mission execution, there’s always opportunities to enjoy being up in the air.”
It was this past February, while serving in his previous role as the military Director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force, that Etz few his last F/A-18 flight. “Although I remained extremely busy with management duties, I was lucky enough to fly F/A-18 support missions about once or twice a week.”
His primary duties were related to the programmatic aspects of meeting the needs of the test program, ensuring they were appropriately resourced, and that the test team was given the support and time needed to get the flights done. “We were also concerned with making the right prioritization between getting the test flights accomplished and all the underlying engineering efforts associated with validating the performance of the aircraft and subsystems.”
Etz became a part of the acquisition community early in his career after completing the Navy’s Test Pilot School year-long syllabus, and he started working on various development programs for the Navy. The school provides pilots with the opportunity to start to build experience on how the Navy acquires, develops and tests products before they go to the fleet.
“Initially, as a test pilot, I was verifying and validating performance capabilities of a system, whether that’s an aircraft or a system installed on a aircraft. With each of my tours at Patuxent River, the blend shifted from a test flying role to more of an acquisition or program management type of role,” Etz said.
Etz has logged more than 3,500 flight hours in over 35 types of aircrafts, and with that type of experience, has many flights that stand out in his mind, but none more surreal than the hours following the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on our country.
On detachment in Fallon, Nevada, Etz was doing some training with his air wing, preparing for a deployment aboard the USS John C. Stennis in 2002. Like most, he had been going about his normal routine, and had just returned from a morning run when he turned on the news to discover what many on the east coast had been watching in horror. Etz knew there would be some military response.
“Hours later, I, along with five of my counterparts, launched our F/A-18’s to join USS Stennis which was off the coast of California,” he said. “Usually flying from Nevada to San Diego, you have to navigate around all kinds of restricted areas, but that day, there was no other flight traffic, and we flew a direct course out to the carrier. It was one of my most surreal flights, and we spent the next few days flying air patrols over LA.”
Etz said he’s had many other great flights, but he’s been most honored when he’s been able to assist the ground forces. “We, as aviators, have it pretty easy compared to the folks who are taking fire on the ground. I’ve done a number of deployments in support of operations in Afghanistan and any time we can help our teammates on the ground, that’s probably the time I’ve been most honored.”
Now a part of Team Orlando, Etz and his family have been settling in and getting to know their new community. “My favorite thing to do in the world is to spend time with my family and they are what gets me the most excited in life!” he said.
“We spend a fair amount of time at the theme parks, as you can imagine with a 7 ½ year old and a 4 ½ year old, but we’ve been able to spend some time at other great locations, and have even been out to see a rocket launch at Kennedy Space Center. But we haven’t even hit the tip of the iceberg for all that we want to do,” Etz said.
And he also thinks that the Central Florida Research Park is a hidden gem. “I think what you’re seeing here is really the nexus of Modeling, Simulation and Training, and it’s really the best place to make sure that we meet that vision of how we train, so we can meet the future needs of the nation.”
And together in Central Florida — Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force — Etz believes that it’s critical for the team to ensure there is a joint vision. “When we talk about things like Live, Virtual, Constructive training, we need to talk about it in a joint environment,” he said. “That’s really how we fight as a nation. There’s no better location to ensure that we train jointly than right here in Central Florida, where those training systems are developed.”