Traffic going into Naval Air Station Key West's Boca Chica Field was backed up to U.S. 1 for the Thursday retirement of NAS Cmdr. Capt. Patrick LaFere and the handoff of the station's command to Capt. Steven McAlearney.
LaFere, nicknamed Sparky, logged more than 3,990 flight hours in his 27-year career as a naval aviator.
On hand for the formal ceremony held in a crowded Hangar A-936 were LaFere's wife Wendy, four children and his nine siblings.
Rear Admiral J.C. Scorby Jr., commander of Navy Region Southeast, looked back on the career of his longtime friend LaFere, keeping his comments light.
"Spark truly believes St. Patrick's Day is in his honor," he said. "There is one area I hear Sparky hasn't improved: It's his golf game. If you grew potatoes, they'd come up sliced."
On a serious note, he lauded LaFere's three-year tenure in the Southernmost City, during which NAS Key West ran some 195,000 flight operations supported by about 3,000 sailors and civilian employees.
"You made a difference in this community," Scorby said. "In 27 years, he has gotten progressively more difficult assignments and there has been one comment element. He has excelled at every job he has ever had."
One highlight of LaFere's tenure was the September 2012 UNITAS exercise that saw NAS Key West host warships from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the United Kingdom at the Outer Mole Pier.
The 53rd reprisal of the international exercise named after the Latin word for unity, UNITAS was a two-week drill designed to prepare cooperating nations to respond to military and humanitarian situations.
"The relationship between this city and the Navy is historic," LaFere said, noting NAS Key West would celebrate its 100-year anniversary in 2017 and that the Navy has a presence in the Southernmost City for 190 years.
"I've been to many communities over 27 years but I've never been to one more supportive of the military than Key West and Monroe County," he said.
In fact, LaFere plans to stay in the Keys and already has a job lined up. He'll serve as the Monroe County School District's director of operations beginning July 1 under a two year contract worth $116,381 per year.
"Thank you for the opportunity," LaFere told Superintendent Mark Porter. "I'm very much looking forward to this transition."
McAlearney comes to Key West from his former post in the Washington, D.C., office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats.
He's a 1989 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, received his aviator's wings in September 1991 and has logged more than 3,600 flight hours and 850 carrier landings.
McAlearney has served in a variety of flight-based assignments and as nuclear operations officer at U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. He earned a master's degree in national resource strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (Eisenhower School) in June 2012.
After thanking LaFere for "letting me take over for you," he discussed NAS Key West's primary goal of supporting mission readiness.
"That is why we're here," he said to the crowd, including hundreds of sailors in crisp, white dress uniforms standing at rapt attention. "By supporting each other, sharing our experience and knowledge ... we can achieve new heights."