Former UC Davis student firefighter now leads US Navy’s safety efforts
For a long time the smell of jet fuel brought back terrible but life-changing memories for retired naval aviator Kevin Couch ’85.
During his third year at UC Davis, Couch was working Former UC Davis student firefighter now leads US Navy’s safety efforts as a part-time student firefighter when a stunt plane from the Yolo County Fair crashed into a campus field. His team responded.
“We thought there was only one person in the plane for a while,” said Couch who joined the navy as an officer soon after graduating from UC Davis. “Then, we discovered there was another person in the backseat. Neither of them came out alive.”
Couch continued, “So at naval aviation training, one of the problems I had was that the smell of jet fuel reminded me of that crash. It took me a while to get over it when I started learning to fly.”
Nonetheless, Couch graduated with honors from Aviation Officer Candidate Achieving the Impossible School. While on active duty, he served as a wartime commanding officer of the HS-4 Black Knights, among other leadership roles, and earned several awards, including being twice named pilot of the year by the Association of Naval Aviation. He also earned honors and a master’s degree from the Eisenhower School of National Defense University, in addition to being a distinguished graduate of the Naval Nuclear Power School.
In good hands
Now retired from active duty and living in San Diego with his wife Holly Hunt ’84, who he met at UC Davis, Couch’s life is far from sedentary.
Couch is director of operational safety for the U.S. Navy, meaning he oversees the safety of over 160 Navy ships around the world. When the Navy decided to create this position, Couch— with his strong reputation and background in aviation, surface, and submarine safety—was a shoo-in for the job.
“I find satisfaction in accomplishing what was regarded as not only unlikely but impossible.”
— Kevin Couch
In this role, Couch is in charge of designing and implementing the safety management system for the fleet and collaborating with commanding officers to make certain that the system is efficient and easy-to-use. In addition, Couch is head of Safety Cell—a role that encompasses the coordination of policy and assistance for all of the Navy’s warships, except aircraft carriers.
“My proudest moments in my career are times when we focused everybody on what needed to be accomplished, made sure they had what they needed, and provided the overarching goals that motivated them to get it done,” he said. “I find satisfaction in accomplishing what was regarded as not only unlikely but impossible.”
These are qualities he admires about the UC Davis community as well. A CAAA Life Member, he remains connected with his alma mater through local chapter gatherings, including a recent event on the USS Midway. He still counts his fellow Aggie firefighters among his closest friends.
An upward trajectory
Couch attributes his high regard for knowledge, safety and excellence in part to the lessons he learned at UC Davis as a student firefighter.
“The experience of that crash emphasized to me the need to absolutely know what you’re doing and to do the right thing every time you go flying,” he said. “And that of course extends to other situations as well.”
“I figured I could do anything since I’d been a firefighter,” he laughed