Ex-Fighter Pilot Paul Speer Begins His Tour of Duty As Port’s Board Chairman
After a 37-year career in the Navy that included flying more than 200 combat missions in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and serving as commander of the USS Constellation, it would seem Paul Speer was ready for a little R & R; when he retired in 1983.
But at 55, the thought of a life of leisure didn’t sit well with him.
“I was way too young to just stop,” said the former rear admiral who took over this year as the chairman of the San Diego Port Commission.
Following a distinguished Navy career, Speer put in about seven years as a top executive at two aerospace firms. Then he officially retired but still couldn’t “go completely to ground idle,” he said, using the aviator lingo that has stayed with him.
He became president of his condominium’s homeowners association in Coronado, joined civic clubs, served on citizen advisory committees, and in 1993, he was selected to represent Coronado on the Port Commission, the governing body for the San Diego Unified Port District.
Today at age 71, Speer still isn’t throttling down. If anything, he’s been revving his engines at higher speeds since taking over in January as chairman of the seven-member commission, which manages the tidelands for five cities with bayfront property.
In addition to running the Port Commission’s twice-monthly meetings, Speer also has more evening commitments representing the port.
“It could almost be a full-time job,” he says.
Airport A Current Target
At the top of Speer’s and the port’s agenda these days is implementing an improvement plan for Lindbergh Field so the facility can accommodate the growing passenger needs over the next 20 years.
Along with a series of proposed improvements that include a possible second runway, the port also posed the question of whether San Diego should consider finding a site for a new regional airport.
That rankled three local elected officials, who sharply criticized the port’s commissioners and staff members last summer for what they said was addressing an issue that was beyond the port’s jurisdiction.
“All three of them chastised us,” Speer says, referring to state Sen. Steve Peace, and mayors Susan Golding of San Diego and Art Madrid of La Mesa. “The feeling that I got from that was we were being chastised for thinking ‘off tidelands.’ We were chastised because we were taking an initiative that looked more regional than just Lindbergh Field.”
Speer says the port had no intention of taking over locating a new airport, a responsibility of the San Diego Association of Governments. The port was having talks with that regional planning agency and the city of San Diego for months before last summer’s public meeting, he added.
In a move that some observers view as a direct result of the port’s airport presentation last summer, Peace proposed a new super-agency that would encompass the port, Sandag and four other government agencies that deal with managing the region’s infrastructure.
Peace says the current bureaucratic arrangement isn’t working , particularly in light of the area’s worsening traffic problems , and needs an overhaul.
Speer says a good deal of Peace’s concept has merit, but doesn’t agree the port should be dissolved.
“I think the port has been a success and to dismantle it is not the right way to go,” he says.
Speer met with Peace and has talked to him about the proposed infrastructure agency, but said the Port Commission won’t take a stand until the actual bill is introduced in Sacramento.
Speer said he isn’t upset at the idea of possibly presiding over the last Port Commission meeting. In fact, he says the controversy and subsequent series of public meetings about the airport has helped raise the airport issue in the public’s consciousness.
“What this is doing, we hope, is getting input,” he says. “People will be educated that we have a two-track (improvement plan), and that we will look at incrementally fixing Lindbergh in various ways, but at the same time we are serious about what our airport is going to look like in 2025.”
Speer’s background as a Navy fighter pilot and current recreational flier has been helpful in guiding fellow board members on airport issues, says Commissioner Jess Van Deventer of National City.
Beyond his expertise in this area, Speer is a “natural born leader,” who is exceptionally well organized, intelligent, and makes his points without fanfare, says Commissioner Frank Urtasun of Imperial Beach.
“He sits back and lets others take the headlines. This year he has stepped up to the forefront and took over the chairmanship and it’s been a pleasure to watch him,” Urtasun says. “If this guy can run the Constellation, he can run a complicated organization like the Port District.”
Concerning his Navy career, Speer says he never dreamed about reaching the rank of rear admiral or commanding an aircraft carrier and a fleet of ships in Japan. His goals were always more immediate and attainable, he says.
“I would think in terms of becoming the operations officer, or commander of a fighter squadron. You always want the next step and then the next step after that.”
Speer entered the Navy right after graduating from high school in Ridgway, Pa. It was 1946, and the Navy was looking for bright, capable young men to replace the many pilots who were returning home from the long war.
Speer was sent to college and won his aviator wings just as the Korean War was erupting. At the age of 23, Speer was flying one of this nation’s first fighter jets, a F-2H Banshee, into combat.
“You just think of yourself as bulletproof, but it hits you sometimes when you see one of your friends getting shot down,” he said.
During the Vietnam War, Speer logged five separate tours, the last as commander of an air wing on board the aircraft carrier Constellation, flying missions over Hanoi and other parts of Vietnam.
At the time of his last assignment, Speer was back at the Navy’s Top Gun fighter training school at Miramar because he had racked up too much combat time. But because three air wing commanders had been killed, he was called upon, and served once again.
Urtasun recalled a time when he and Speer were called to testify at a congressional hearing chaired by Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-San Diego. When they entered the chamber, Cunningham stopped what he was saying and made an effusive introduction of Speer to his congressional colleagues.
“A lot of people make a big deal of Duke Cunningham’s fighter pilot history, but Paul Speer was his boss. This guy was the top gun of Top Gun and people don’t know that. He doesn’t share that type of stuff. That’s the type of guy he is,” Urtasun says.
Asked to reflect on his distinguished career in the Navy and as a port commissioner, Speer didn’t hesitate to give credit to someone else.
“My wife Jenny and I will be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary next year, and I couldn’t have done very much without her. She’s been with me every step of the way.”
Speer was recently honored by the Coronado Chamber of Commerce as one of two recipients of the Capt. Harry T. Jenkins Award for his service to the community.
Coronado City Councilwoman Patty Schmidt, who happens to be from Speer’s birthplace of Greensburg, Pa., said Speer is a doer, not a talker.
“If you want something done and need something done, you go to Paul Speer because he will get it done,” she says.