The journey to become the head of the 182nd Airlift Wing started some 32 years ago, when Col. Daniel R. McDonough didn’t get into the U.S. Air Force.
McDonough, an aspiring pilot and a senior at Indiana State University, was down and thought his chance of being a military pilot were shot. That is, until someone told him about the Illinois Air National Guard unit based at the Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport.
“A guy told me to look into the 182nd. I knew about the unit and I knew they had planes out there, but I didn’t know they train pilots,” he said.
But they did, and 32 years later, McDonough, 54, is still flying. He’s now the head of the 182nd and commands more than 1,200 airmen.
McDonough took over for longtime commander Gen. William “Robbie” Robertson, who was promoted earlier this year.
McDonough isn’t completely new to the commanding role. Since 2006, he’s headed the wing’s operations group, which essentially means he was in charge of the guys who flew and maintained the eight C-130H3 Hercules cargo planes.
But he’s having to learn how everyone else does their jobs, down to the minute level.
“I knew what the others did, but I didn’t really know how they did it,” McDonough said.
And although he loves his role and has nothing but high praise for Robertson and the 182nd, flying is McDonough’s passion. He’s deployed almost a dozen times to both Iraq and Afghanistan and now doesn’t relish the role of commanding others to go off to war.
“It was one thing if I was going with them, but now I’m the guy who says you go and I have to stay back,” he said, admitting that his days of deploying are likely over unless the entire wing goes, or at least a large chunk of it.
He’s amazed, he said, that he’s the big boss at the wing. And he still wonders at all the events that fell into place so he could have an easy landing out at the wing.
It was 1985 and he was only four years removed from graduation at old Spalding Institute in Peoria. The school’s network paid off as others out there, including Gen. Frank Rezac, were also Spalding grads.
An interview here, a discussion there and by 1987 — the first opening he could get — he was off to flight school.
But he didn’t start off flying the big C-130s, which have been a mainstay at the airport since the mid-1990s. First, he was in an OA-37B Dragon, a small jet that was designed to help the Air Force spot where bombs should be dropped or artillery should be fired.
That plane was phased out in 1992 and replaced by the F-16 Falcon, the sleek single-engineer fighter that is still in service. The 182nd flew the air superiority model, which meant they were trained to take out other aircraft in dogfights. The Falcon retained strike capability like the Dragonfly, but it was a vastly different plane.
For two or three years, the wing was in the fighter business, and then came the Hercules. It’s equal to replacing a high end sports car with a minivan.
A lot of guys weren’t thrilled with the move that likely has protected the wing from closure or shrinkage. Not McDonough, who relished the chance. To him, it was another challenge on how to be the best.
“Some units are content with being average. Here, we want to be the best, and we took some of that fighter jock mentality from the F-16 and brought it over to the 130s. It’s not enough to do the mission, but how can we do it better?” he said recently.
He doesn’t plan to change much, he said. Robertson left a well-running wing that has earned praise across the Air National Guard.
For now, McDonough is learning and attending briefings on how the various groups work. And he’s enjoying the change and noted his good luck all those years ago.
“If I had made it into the Air Force back then, I’d likely be out of it by now and flying commercially,” he said.
© 2017 the Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.)
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