By Donna Cipolloni
NAS Patuxent River Public Affairs
Lt. Adam Patterson’s Navy career hasn’t followed what most people might call the “usual” path. Having experienced his own evolution of sorts, he emerged from the sea and eventually took to the air by first starting as a submariner and later transitioning to an aviator.
Back in 1996, as he was completing high school and considering his next step, Patterson sat for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test and scored in the 99th percentile. Needless to say, the military recruiters came knocking.
“The military wasn’t something I really wanted to do, but I’d always wanted to fly,” said Patterson, currently serving shore duty at NAS Patuxent River as a helicopter pilot with the installation’s Search and Rescue (SAR) team. “I had started flying at 13 and wanted to pursue it, but it was expensive and time consuming.”
Patterson initially considered becoming an Airman, but Navy recruiters pointed out that the Navy has more aircraft than the Air Force, so he signed up as a Sailor.
“The next thing I knew, they said the only thing I qualified for was the nuke program and told me I was going to be a nuke engineer,” he said. “I went to boot camp two months after graduating and then I was off to nuke school in Orlando.”
While his friends were having a good time in college, Patterson was hitting the books long and hard, studying 45 additional hours per week beyond his normal classroom hours.
“We’d start at 0630 and wouldn’t get home until 2300 at night,” he added. “There were 33 in my starting class but only three of us graduated because the program was so difficult.”
Patterson was picked up, went to a naval nuclear power plant in New York, did well in the program and requested an aircraft carrier out of San Diego.
“I was going to be a nuke engineer on an aircraft carrier and I thought it’d be great because I’d finally be near my aviation; but the orders showed up and, unfortunately, they were to a sub out of Norfolk,” he said, chuckling.
Not having volunteered for a submarine, Patterson reported that this wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing, but the Navy countered by suggesting he try it for a year and if he didn’t like it, they’d assign him to a carrier.
“Within six weeks of being there, I wanted to talk with the XO; I wanted to be a submariner and I wanted it in my record that I was a submarine volunteer,” Patterson recalled. “I knew it was what I wanted to be. I started losing interest in aviation and focused on being a submariner.”
As a Nuclear Trained Machinist’s Mate (MMN), Patterson worked on secondary propulsion systems and auxiliary equipment to make the reactor work and provide the sub’s fresh drinking water, high pressure compressed air and all the electrical power. A skilled welder, he could also take a block of metal and create any repair part the sub needed.
“Everything that made the sub work, I owned two-thirds of it,” he noted. “When I quickly got qualified up to the highest I could possibly qualify in the nuke program as an enlisted man, I got bored.”
Never glamorous, submarine life changed further after the 2000 bombing of USS Cole (DDG-67), when subs took on larger roles in mission sets and would spend 90 days or more at sea before pulling in to port.
Boredom spurs learning
“At the time, there was no Internet, no email, we didn’t have phones; so I read books because there was nothing else to do,” Patterson said. “I had all the quals in the engineering spaces, so I started reading about submarining and submarine warfare tactics, weapons employments, torpedoes, cruise missiles. I learned everything until my head hurt.”
Patterson learned so much he was able to help further improve the capabilities and employment methods of our modern submarines.
His efforts did not go unnoticed. In 2004, Patterson went to Submarine Squadrons 6 and 8 in Norfolk and was responsible for 12 subs. That was also the year he made Chief Petty Officer, after only six years in the Navy.
“People would tell me I’d be MCPON someday, so that was the plan,” he added. “But my captain had a different plan and put me in for the Seaman to Admiral Program so I could get my commission.”
Graduating from the University of Arizona in 2008, Patterson planned to remain a nuke submariner and take command of his own submarine one day, but the aviation department reminded him of his early desire to fly, so he took the test and scored a near-perfect mark.
“I called my former captain and told him I could probably get selected for aviation and he told me if I wanted to do it, I had earned it and should go for it,” he said.
Up, up and away
So it was off to Pensacola for flight school where Patterson did well and ultimately ended up in helicopter training where he requested to fly CH-53s out of Norfolk but, instead, got MH-60 Romeos out of San Diego.
“It’s amazing that whatever you think, for whatever reason, someone else thinks otherwise,” Patterson noted. “Somebody felt I needed to be a submariner and I don’t know who that was, but I thank them every day because they made my career what it is today. Same thing with the Romeo — the 53s would’ve been neat to fly, but the avionics package on the Romeo makes it the most capable aircraft in the fleet, in my opinion, and it was a great opportunity to be able to fly that asset.”
Patterson has seen his share of action. As a submariner, from 1999 to 2005 he served on the fast attack sub USS Albany (SSN 753) and spent nearly the entire time underway. In 2004 alone, he spent 242 days under the sea. As an aviator, with Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 73 he did a 10-month deployment, spending most of his time in 5th Fleet. Aboard the destroyer USS Gridley (DDG 101), he made six port calls in 10 months. He even made it to an aircraft carrier, spending three months with a strike group aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70).
“I’ve been on every continent except Antarctica and I’ve sailed every sea, and that’s all because of the Navy,” Patterson said. “I can’t even tell you how many countries I’ve been to, all because the Navy took me there.”
Shore duty with Pax River’s SAR
Patterson arrived at Pax River last October and flies the station’s SAR MH-60 helicopter.
“It’s a stripped down version made for troop transport for SAR so we can put as many injured personnel in the aircraft as possible,” he added. “The group of pilots and aircrewmen here are topnotch, dedicated professionals. I see it every day. Every day we’re focused on saving lives.”
Patterson urges young Sailors not to be complacent, and always strive for more.
“It’s good to be good at your job, but that should just happen,” he said. “It’s everything else you seek out in professional development that makes you the best Sailor. If you’re not trying to better yourself and the people around you, then what are you doing?”
Eligible for retirement in two and a half years, Patterson says if the Navy wants to keep him around longer, he’s willing to stay.
“The Navy has a lot invested in me and I’m still waiting for a niche to be carved out in the aviation community,” he said. “I’m just now understanding aviation the way I understood submarines. I’ve gotten to the point where I can see places or processes that need improvement or a change here or there. We’ll see if I get the additional time to do that but, if not, I think I’ll be okay finding a job.”