As Commander of the 182d Airlift Wing, Colonel William P. Robertson is responsible for over 1,200 Illinois Air National Guardsmen. He maintains the combat-readiness of the Wing and ensures that all units can fulfill state and federal missions as directed. The Colonel is a Peoria native through and through, having attended Peoria High School, Illinois Central College and Bradley University.
His military career began in 1980 when he enlisted in the Illinois Air National Guard as a security policeman while taking classes at ICC. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he attended squadron officer school, air command and staff college and air war college, working his way up the chain of command. He commanded the 186th Expeditionary Operations Group during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Among a long list of awards and decorations, Colonel Robertson has received the Bronze Star, Air Medal, Air Force Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Achievement Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
Tell us about your background, family, education, etc.
I was born and raised in Peoria and attended Whittier Grade School, Peoria High School, Illinois Central College and Bradley University. My grandfather, AJ Robertson, moved here from Minnesota in 1919 when he was hired to coach at Bradley. The rest is, as they say, “history.”
My dad also grew up in Peoria, attending Whittier, Peoria High and Bradley, so I guess you could say, “like father, like son.” The difference is that I was not as gifted in athletics as he and the rest of the Robertsons were. He coached at Peoria High and eventually became principal in the ‘70s. It was interesting going to high school with my father as principal. If I went to the office to see the dean for any reason, I usually got diverted into my dad’s office. Those visits were always more unpleasant—I would have rather seen the dean!
My mother and father were always there for me. Dad ran a tight ship and Mom made sure I got it done. You can imagine growing up with a father who came from a coaching family and also coached many years. He was tough—a disciplinarian—but had a heart of gold. I wouldn’t trade either of them for all the money in the world. I think they knew by the time I was in third grade that I was destined for some military service. I always had an interest in model aircraft and ships. I was enthralled with military equipment—the stuff fascinated me. I love to read and watch military history because it goes to the very foundation of this country. In any case, I grew up studying the military. I think my two sisters, Holly and Amy, would have liked me to build fewer models of aircraft, because I had them all over the house.
My goal was to attend a service academy, but that fell through. I was determined to serve one way or another, and that’s where I found my way back to Bradley University and the Air National Guard.
What inspired you to join the Air National Guard in 1980? Did you always have an interest in becoming a pilot?
At one point I pursued law enforcement with the goal of becoming a police officer. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to serve and fly airplanes. As I pursued law enforcement, I attended Illinois Central College, earning an associate’s degree. During that time I enlisted in the Illinois Air National Guard. I signed up to be a security policeman, which entailed guarding aircraft and facilities, along with law enforcement duties. This gave me a great background.
I also interned with the Peoria Police Department for almost four years. We have the finest police department here in Peoria. I met some of the most dedicated officers of any department I have come in contact with. They were also pivotal in redirecting my focus back into aviation, as they saw my desire to fly and turned me back to it.
As a member of the 182d, I went to the director of operations and inquired about flying the A-37 Dragonfly jets. I thought they would send me away, for sure. To my surprise, the Commander signed me up and told me I needed to complete my four-year degree. I immediately signed up to finish my degree at Bradley, which I completed in 1983. As promised, I was sent to pilot training at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, in August of 1983. After pilot training I returned to Peoria to fly the A-37. I enjoyed that aircraft and the mission. We had a dual role: we could fly aircraft in combat and mark targets with rockets for our fighters, or be on the ground with the Army, moving with them through battle, directing our fighters on enemy targets. It was a very rewarding and challenging mission that we still do here at the 182d Airlift Wing. Unfortunately, we do not have the aircraft that performed that mission, making it strictly ground mission at this time.
When you first enlisted, did you imagine that you would end up commanding the 182d Airlift Wing?
I never really gave it much thought. I joined the Guard for experience in law enforcement, but found my way back into doing something I dreamt about as a kid—flying. Each phase of my Guard career has driven me to seek out opportunities to better myself. I have always had a great attachment to this unit because it is made up of citizen airmen from around Peoria and the state. We have some folks who come from out of state also. I guess you could say I have always wanted to leave the place better than I found it. Now I am the Wing Commander, and I had better do that!
How was the Guard different then than it is today?
The Guard has evolved from a strategic reserve to an operational reserve. The public in general does not really grasp that concept. They see the old, Cold War Guard in many respects. You hear that in conversations from time to time. The Guard was a force, at that time, that was going to “the big one” when called. Now they can’t believe a guy who works at Caterpillar could be flying supplies into Baghdad right when our ground forces took the field. We were right alongside the active-duty Air Force the whole way. They call it Total Force. You can’t tell the difference when we deploy and execute our missions.
I would just like to say we meld together to become a very formidable force fighting for this country. It truly is impressive. In today’s world we are out there engaged on a daily basis. We have airplanes and people coming and going all the time. It is a tribute to our people that they can juggle their civilian jobs and serve our country at such a vital juncture in its history. I am so proud of our people to have been involved in the Global War on Terror from day one! They continue to serve in an outstanding manner.
Tell us about some of your experiences as a pilot flying aircraft and your mobilization during Desert Storm in the early ‘90s.
Well, I’ve been very fortunate to have flown a few different aircraft: the T-41, T-37, T-38, C-26, AT-38B, A-37B, F-16 and the C-130. Each aircraft was an absolute joy to fly and had a different mission. Learning those missions was challenging.
I’ve gotten to fly airplanes that do things that still amaze me. It could be anything from marking targets with rockets to bombing and strafing (strafing—the delivery of automatic weapons fire by aircraft on ground targets). Dog fighting with other aircraft were probably the most enjoyable experiences flying. Those missions really tasked you, and you had better be on your game or somebody was going to hand it to you up there.
Refueling in mid-air was also a challenge. Doing that in bad weather could be very challenging at times. You knew you needed the gas, so you had to get on the boom or you were going to run out. Somebody said it best when they said, “How many times do you get to fly 300 miles per hour hooked up to another plane and take on fuel?” My experiences have been great.
Do you still fly?
I still fly, but not as much as I would like to. The duties of the wing commander take up a lot more time than just flying. I miss flying “on the line” but I still get up to fly as much as I can to stay proficient and combat-ready. I am still a fully mission-ready pilot. It takes a lot of work, but it is very rewarding.
Explain the operational mission and activities undertaken by the 182d Airlift Wing and its role in relation to the Air Mobility Command and the Air Force as a whole.
The 182d Airlift Wing is part of the Illinois Air National Guard. We are actually under the control of the governor in peacetime when not mobilized. Air Mobility Command is our gaining major command (MAJCOM). Air Mobility Command provides forces to the Combatant Commander (COCOM) in time of war, such as in Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT). So when we deploy to the desert, we fall under the Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander and the Commander of the Air Force forces (AFCENT). Our mission varies, but for the most part, we are responsible for moving people and equipment worldwide. We perform airdrop and resupply of our forces whenever necessary. Most of our airlift occurs in the theater of operations, such as CENTCOM, when mobilized. The 182d Airlift Wing trains on a daily basis stateside, but also flies operational missions around the country. These missions could include medical evacuation or cargo movements.
What are your duties as commander? What is a “typical day at the office” like for you?
There’s never a typical day. As commander, I am responsible for over 1,200 men and women. Essentially, my job is to have them ready for whatever mission is tasked. I can’t do that alone and am fortunate to have great commanders working for me who make sure that gets done. When it comes to mission execution, our enlisted people are the best. They really rise to the challenge, whatever it may be. They make the difficult look easy.
One day might involve working issues overseas and another might be state issues. We train for a wide variety of scenarios, which keep the job interesting.
When the 182d is mobilized, how does that impact your duties and those of the unit as a whole?
The days of an entire unit mobilizing are few and far between. This current conflict demands that we send unit types over to the conflict. A kind of plug-and-play, if you will. As I said, my job is to ensure my unit is ready and give them all the tools they need to do their job.
Describe some of the missions the 182d has undertaken in the last decade.
Wow! I could write for days on this one! The 182d has several missions assigned to it. They include ground missions as well as flying, which have been all over the world. We did humanitarian relief to Central and South America, ferrying supplies to hurricane-ravaged areas. After Katrina hit the southern coast of the United States, our aircraft were busy flying into the airfields that were just opened, taking doctors and medical supplies in to assist. We moved equipment to help get the relief operation moving.
The unit performs several different kinds of missions, such as medical patient movement to bring our wounded warriors home. We move equipment around the United States in support of all services.
After 9-11, our aircraft were airborne early on the 12th of September to retrieve our Civil Support Team from a training exercise out West. Only a handful of aircraft were airborne that day, and Peoria’s aircraft were some of them.
We were some of the first to land in Baghdad after it fell in 2003. We participated in air drops to our troops in the middle of combat on the ground in Afghanistan, ensuring our forces remained resupplied. Our aircraft have operated from remote, unimproved strips, resupplying ground forces and evacuating wounded personnel. The list is quite lengthy.
As for our ground forces, we have units that liaison between Army and Air Forces. Our Air Liaison Officers were alongside the Army as they marched on Baghdad. They have controlled air strikes on multiple enemy positions and cave complexes. The mission is difficult but rewarding. It’s all done by people right from our community and the surrounding areas. Not bad for our citizen-airmen!
We have people who ran aerial ports within the theater-loading aircraft. They actually saved the Army from putting numerous convoys on the road by developing a way to return large CONEX containers to their original destination on C-17s. These are 182d AW people bringing their training and expertise from the civilian world and applying it during wartime. Our security forces and firefighters have been deployed. Almost all of our folks are veterans of the war who have performed magnificently. I expect nothing less and they always get missions done in an outstanding manner.
How were your experiences in Operation Iraqi Freedom different from those of the first Desert Storm operation?
The difference was the mission. In Desert Storm One, we were a Tactical Air Support Group. We trained to go alongside the Army to control air strikes on enemy targets. The war ended so quickly that we were mobilized for approximately six months and never made it over to the desert. Iraqi Freedom was a whole different ball game. We were now in the tactical airlift mission. Our job was to move personnel and equipment and do whatever the C-130 was designed to do.
The main difference from Desert Storm to Iraqi Freedom was that I was a captain doing the mission in Desert Storm One. During Iraqi Freedom, I was a colonel in charge of approximately 400 people and the mission execution with 22 C-130s. I can tell you that Iraqi Freedom brought about challenges I never dreamed of, but as I said earlier, having great people to work with helps things go smoothly. Iraqi Freedom was a great test for our unit, and I was so proud to be a part of it. We built our base from nothing and launched missions within 24 hours of arrival. Our maintenance personnel were phenomenal—100 percent launch reliability. That is spectacular for aircraft built in 1963! Our crews worked both sides of the clock on very demanding missions that were sometimes pushed to the limit by enemy fire and horrible weather conditions. I can’t say enough about them. We all came home without a scratch and I was proud to be a part of it.
How does the Guard work with businesses and organizations to help those returning from duty overseas?
The Guard works diligently to assimilate our people back to their jobs and families when they return. We all watch out for each other. We have organizations, such as Family Readiness, that provide assistance to families to make the transition back after being mobilized. I always want to work with local businesses if there are any issues with our guardsmen who are employed by these people. I can’t say “thank you” enough to the employers and our Family Readiness volunteers in the area who support our Air Guardsmen. Without the support of these employers and people in our community, we could not do our job.
The demands on a citizen-airman are immense. Think about it: You hire one of our 182d Airlift Wing people in the community. You get somebody who receives training in leadership and professional skills throughout their career. This person, at the receipt of a phone call, throws a switch and could now be piloting an aircraft over enemy territory and dropping supplies to our men and women on the ground. Pretty spectacular, if you ask me. So we thank all of the area businesses and employers who continue to help our nation by hiring our citizen-airmen and letting them deploy to do the state’s and nation’s work.
Describe your leadership and management style.
I guess you would need to ask my commanders who work directly under me. I like to call myself a “mission hacker.” The mission is the most important thing to get done. However, running neck-and-neck are the people who get it done. There’s a fine balance.
I like accomplishing difficult tasks. I believe that everybody has some level of leadership and must be responsible for their actions. I essentially turn them loose on an issue; I want them to solve it. I’ll help them if necessary, but the only way people grow and become leaders is by experiencing success and failure. You have to let them fail sometimes. We don’t ever want the mission to fail, but sometimes have to let people see through their ideas and concepts. That’s why we train so hard—to test our abilities through training and exercises. Better to find out during training than in actual combat.
I don’t look at this world as one mistake and you’re out! People need to grow and learn. Once you are considered “experienced,” the margin for error should decrease. However, people must be accountable for their actions.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Spare time? I rarely have spare time, but when I do, I spend it with my family. I used to rebuild cars a long time ago and still, to this day, want to buy an old military vehicle and restore it. For now I just get to tinker with stuff around the house.
Is there anything else you’d like to address that hasn’t been discussed?
We offer great opportunities for our community to serve the nation and state. I think we may sometimes be considered “Peoria’s best-kept secret.” I am amazed at the people who see our facilities and can’t believe the capability that resides right here in Peoria. We always look to Peoria and the surrounding communities for support in what we do. I took advantage of this as a 20-year-old and can say that it has been extremely rewarding. I would hope that you all would encourage those individuals who want a challenge to give us a call.
It is a great way to serve the nation, state and community.
I would also like to thank all of the folks who have supported the Wing and its mission over the past years. The history of this unit goes back all the way to 1946. A lot of people have sacrificed their time and energy to be a part of and support it. We have come through some difficult times with the war and BRAC (Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission). My thanks go out to the community for all of their support. We will continue to be a part of our nation’s defense for years to come, and with the support of the employers and businesses in the community, we will get the mission accomplished. Thanks to all of you! IBI