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Point Mugu Welcomes New Base Commander : Military: After 2 1/2 years at the helm and 23 years in the Navy, Capt. Selwyn Laughter retires, leaving post to Capt. Stephen Beal.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the clang of a ship’s bell and the mournful tones of a boatswain’s pipe, the Point Mugu Navy base retired its old commanding officer and ushered in the new.

Capt. Selwyn S. Laughter strode down a red carpet flanked by five-inch shells, symbolically leaving the Navy and command of the Naval Air Weapons Station at Point Mugu.

He was relieved by Capt. Stephen D. Beal in a change-of-command ceremony steeped in two centuries of Navy tradition.

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“In the old days of wooden ships and iron men, you’d have a ship deploy at sea for months or years at at time,” Adm. Dana B. McKinney told the gathering of civilians, Navy officers and enlisted men and women in their dress whites. “When the ship left port, the captain was the law, with no other recourse.

“So we have invested a lot in our leadership,” he said. “For the Navy, the command is a very sacred trust.”

Laughter, pronounced LAW-ter, leaves the Navy after 23 years as a fighter pilot, test pilot and finally commander of the 900 people who run the base’s airfield, its galley, exchange and even sewer system.

“It was a 2 1/2-year lesson in life,” Laughter said. “I was a sheltered fighter pilot. I didn’t know what activated sludge was. Now I do.”

During Laughter’s time at the helm, Point Mugu has been under assault from all sides.

The Malibu wildfires swept across nearby Laguna Peak in 1993, miraculously sparing the costly radar, antennas and high-tech communications equipment used in testing missiles fired over the ocean.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake rattled the base, and last winter’s storms kicked up high surf that chewed chunks out of part of the base and destroyed several buildings.

“This can be a tranquil place or full of fire and fury,” Laughter said. “It’s been a fight against Mother Nature, and we survived.”

Laughter is leaving the Navy to take a job as one of a dozen test pilots for United Airlines. His new duty, he said, will be to test-fly new aircraft or airliners with maintenance troubles.

“He’s getting a great job,” McKinney said. “Being a test pilot in the private sector is pretty rare.”

Beal comes to Point Mugu from its sister Navy base in White Sands, N.M. Point Mugu, White Sands and another base at China Lake in the upper Mojave Desert make up the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division.

“He’s part of the family,” McKinney told the crowd on Friday. “He knows the business.”

Beal spoke briefly to the crowd, standing at a podium in the brilliant afternoon sunshine as a cool ocean breeze played with a corridor of flags from all 50 states.

He said he was struck by the difference between Point Mugu, an oceanfront base south of Oxnard, and the isolated White Sands base, which lies in the blistering desert of New Mexico.

“I’m used to sand, but not as much water,” he said.

Beal, a helicopter pilot, has spent much of his Navy career conducting search and rescue missions or working with squadrons that hunt submarines.

Friday’s change of command was not the only major shift of players at the base, which survived a threat of closure earlier this year.

Capt. Roger Hull, vice commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division, has accepted a new position at Navy headquarters in Crystal City, Va.

If the Navy finds a replacement soon, Hull will leave in late October to take a bigger job as head of an umbrella program that oversees communications and computers on aircraft, ships and submarines.

“I’m disappointed to be leaving this early,” said Hull, who has spent two years and four months at Point Mugu. “There is a lot of unfinished work left for me to do.”


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