PEORIA, Ill. -- In the case of Lt. Col. William "Wheels" Wheeler, what one unit loses another will gain. Lt. Col. Wheeler, the commander of Peoria's 168th Air Support Operations Squadron, took the executive officer seat at the 183rd Fighter Wing in Springfield October 20. He took with him 37 years of enlisted, commissioned and joint-service experience, and brought his career full-circle by returning to the base where he started.
Lt. Col. Wheeler enlisted as a crew chief in Springfield's F-4 Phantom unit in 1977. His career took him to the Kansas Air National Guard for 10 years before he transferred to the 182nd Airlift Wing in Peoria to help make Air Force history.
Proving it could be done
The Air Force's pool of air liaison officers began drying up when it began shutting down tactical air support groups in the late 1980s. Adding to the sting of a manning shortage, the aviator-only job of advising ground fighters in the use of air power was not a desirable job for a flier who wanted to be in the sky.
The 182nd decided to try solving the problem with an experiment and launched a test program to see if non-rated officers could be effective ALOs.
They chose Lt. Col. Wheeler to become one of their candidates in 1990.
"I was a maintenance NCO, didn't even know about the business," said Lt. Col. Wheeler, "and Col. Bart Welker - a lieutenant at the time - ran the program and trained us up. We basically took our show on the road with different Army exercises, going out to the National Training Center and down to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana."
The new non-flier ALOs hit the ground running, and with opposition from the fighter pilot community that said it could not be done. Lt. Col. Wheeler was not the type to be slowed down.
"Well, we just kept keeping our nose to the grindstone, did our job, and didn't listen to all the chatter on the outside. And the Air National Guard bought off on the program in 1993," said Lt. Col. Wheeler.
The Air Force eventually agreed and created the 13LX Air Force specialty code in 2009, validating the groundwork that ALOs like Lt. Col. Wheeler had accomplished.
Not easily replaceable
As a lieutenant and captain, Lt. Col. Wheeler spent time learning his craft and became a joint terminal attack controller, a Battlefield Airman who directs close-air support from the front lines. He eventually progressed to positions as a training officer, chief of standards and evaluation, chief of weapons and tactics, and director of operations by 2005. His time at the wing saw him take multiple tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia in a variety of conventional and special operations forces roles.
Lt. Col. Christopher Penningroth, director of operations and temporary commander of the 168th ASOS, said it was apparent that Lt. Col. Wheeler was a serious and focused Airman when he first met him in 2010 at an Air Reserve Component weapons and tactics conference. In his following years after Lt. Col. Penningroth transferred to the Peoria, admitted that Lt. Col. Wheeler's years if experience would not easily be replaceable.
"He knows Army operations very well. He's been doing jobs like this for pretty much his entire officer career and you can really see that. I have never seen any other air liaison officer as familiar with the way the Army does business as he is," said Lt. Col. Penningroth.
From serving as an expeditionary commander, JTAC, ALO, and even an air and space operations center director for NATO headquarters in Kabul, Lt. Col. Wheeler earned a lifetime of experience and proficiency.
Then, in 2007 wing commander Col. William Robertson asked him to become the commander of the 182nd Air Support Operations Group, now the 168th ASOS. In that role, Lt. Col. Wheeler led the command and control operation of managing air assets for JTAC teams. His unit held the responsibility of assessing which aircraft was best suited for the mission, then rushing that aircraft to the battlefield to help coalition forces get out of bad situations.
The commander's perspective
It was from his seasoned commander's seat that Lt. Col. Wheeler said he believes while officers run the Air Force, it is the enlisted that makes the Air Force run.
"The enlisted force is the absolute bedrock foundation of the Air Force," he said. "I watch the amazing things the enlisted force does, and I hope in my last few years in the Air Force that I can help grow a few more good enlisted leaders - and officer leaders, of course - to be able to take the Air National Guard forward after I hang up my spurs."
During Lt. Col. Wheeler's tenure at the wing, Lt. Col. Penningroth remembered the commander as being steady and predictable.
"You pretty much always know his truck is going to be parked in the parking lot at 6:15, even though he has to drive a much longer distance than almost all of us. He rarely took time off for any reason," said Lt. Col. Penningroth.
After 24 years as an operational officer, Lt. Col. Wheeler has now taken an administrative role as the 183rd FW's executive officer. He said he believes his command experience and having had a great support staff will help in the new job.
"It's just a different part of my career," he said. "It'll be different in the respect that I have never done this before. It's just a matter of getting to learn your boss and getting to know those things that he or she needs and making sure those things happen."
While making the move to Springfield will place Lt. Col. Wheeler closer to home and make it easier to help take care of his parents, the changeover was bittersweet.
"I really hate leaving this, because it's been a lot of fun - both from the squadron standpoint and from the wing standpoint - of being a part of something," Lt. Col. Wheeler said. "I've been fortunate to be able to watch the 182nd grow through the years from the A-37 to the F-16 and then into the C-130, all those transitional issues and leadership changes and trying to find the right fit for everything. It's just going to be sad to leave an organization that is operating at its peak."
Nevertheless, he remains optimistic about the next chapter of his livelihood.
"I'm sure there'll be some transitional challenges," he said, "but after 38 years in the Air Force, I've done a few of those."
In his new position, Lt. Col. Wheeler will be responsible for overseeing information management for the commander of the 183rd Fighter Wing commander, to include executing unit programs and special projects on his behalf.