New base commander gets a warm welcome at official handover
The new commander of RAF Lakenheath has said the importance of the American airbase remains strong after he took over the prestigious role at an official ceremony.
Col Robert Novotny said there was “consistent evidence of command fingerprints across every organisation” in the area as he took charge of the 48th Fighter Wing.
The Suffolk base has faced some tough challenges in recent months, with a RAND Corporation report to the US government suggesting RAF Lakenheath should be closed as part of a military cost-cutting review.
In January it also had to deal with tragedy when one of its Pave Hawk search and rescue helicopters crashed during a training exercise at Cley, on the North Norfolk coast, killing the four crew members on board.
Yet despite the challenges and uncertainty over its future, Col Novotny said coming to Lakenheath – which has three combat-ready squadrons of the F-15E Strike Eagle and F-15C Eagle aircraft, as well as the Pave Hawks – “was absolutely my number one choice”.
He added: “I always wanted to join the air force, and the 48th Fighter Wing is a mission-ready wing.
“It’s the kind of wing that I always wanted to be a part of.”
He said he had not yet had a chance to read the report into the Cley crash or the RAND document – but stressed RAND were consultants who would not make decisions about the base.
In his remarks at a change of command ceremony in front of about 700 personnel yesterday, he said: “Everywhere I went last week I saw two things – excitement about Lakenheath and consistent evidence of command fingerprints across every organisation.”
The incoming commander
Col Novotny takes over the commander’s post at RAF Lakenheath with a strong military record of 2,500 flight hours and more than 540 hours in some of the toughest combat zones in the world.
The 44-year-old’s previous posting was in altogether more difficult territory than the calm atmosphere of the Suffolk countryside, as he served as Chief of Staff for the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force and the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, Deputy Commander for Air, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
He has already piloted the F-15E and F-15C aircraft flown from Lakenheath, along with a host of other machines, and boasts a clutch of major awards and decorations.
Col Novotny has completed five operational F-15 assignments and served as an Action Officer at Major Command, a fighter squadron commander and a test and evaluation group commander.
He is also a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School, the Naval Command and Staff College, the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies and the National War College.
He said he was honoured to be taking up the role as commander of 48th Fighter Wing.
Having arrived in the UK last week, Col Novotny remarked that “everyone has been so warm and welcoming” as he has toured community groups around Lakenheath to prepare for the role. He praised the “incredibly impressive” work of the base, adding: “The wing is running on all eight cylinders.”
And when asked whether the end of US combat operations in Afghanistan meant the 48th Fighter Wing has less of a role in the world today, Col Novotny replied: “This is where the striking element comes from. We are ready to respond to any crisis if the call comes.”
Protocol dictates that there must be a seamless transition between outgoing and incoming commanders, with Col Novotny spending the past week preparing basics such as his office layout so he could get started with minimal delay after taking over.
As he greeted servicemen after the ceremony at a reception, his predecessor Col Kyle Robinson was already getting in a car to take him to Heathrow for a flight back to the US.
The outgoing commander
Col Kyle Robinson said it had been an “absolute privilege” to be associated with the servicemen at RAF Lakenheath during his two years as commander at the base.
Col Robinson got the top job at the Suffolk base after participating in combat operations over northern and southern Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
He had even served at Lakenheath previously, between 1997 and 2000. “I never thought I’d get back here and I never thought it’d be in this position,” he said.
Being a commander at a base in the UK had, he said, taught him a lot about the “special relationship” between the two countries. “A lot of time we talk about the special relationship but I didn’t realise until I came here,” he said. “Our countries see eye to eye on so many things. We share common ideals and we are willing to do what we need to do to practise those.”
He said an important part of the base’s ethos was its “team spirit” and encouraged his successor to make sure he found time for his family during his busy role as new commander. He also encouraged him to make time to see the wonderful sights of the surrounding area, such as Ely and Bury St Edmunds.
In his leaving speech, Col Robinson said: “This has been truly a blessing and I have had an outstanding time. It has been an honour and a privilege.
“This has been one of the most amazing opportunities of my life.”
What effect do you think RAF Lakenheath’s presence has on the wider community? Write, giving your full contact details, to: EDP Letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email EDPLetters@archant.co.uk