Air Guard Commander is living a lifelong dream
When Col. Bobbi Doorenbos received her wings following graduation from a 12-month pilot training course in 1996 at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, the feat represented fulfillment of a dream that began when she was a little girl.
Col. Doorenbos credits her father with instilling that dream in her. He used to take her to the airport and watch jet fighters take off and land. When the sound of a jet engine penetrated their house, he would run out into the back yard, look up with his hands in the air and shout, “Yea,” with his little girl right behind him doing the same thing.
“I was following in his footsteps,” Col. Doorenbos said. Her father, a grain elevator owner in the tiny farming community of Breda, Iowa, outside Sioux City, flew the F-100 Super Saber as a pilot in the Iowa Air National Guard.
There was a major roadblock in her determination to become one of the U.S. Air Force’s first female jet fighter pilots after she graduated from Iowa State University: in 1992, women were not allowed.
So she bided her time working for Principal Financial Group in Sioux City until Congress lifted the ban, then joined the Iowa Air National Guard. Doorenbos received her commission as a second lieutenant after graduating from the Academy of Military Science, a national guard officer training program in Knoxville, Tenn., before attending pilot training.
She flew the F-16 Fighting Falcon for the Iowa Air National Guard and earned her stripes as a combat pilot before reverting to part-time Guard status. Converting to civilian aviation, she trained with and flew commercially for American Airlines. But after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the military recalled her.
In 2002, Col. Doorenbos began a decade-long tour in the Washington, D.C. area that landed her in high-profile jobs at the Pentagon and White House. Along the way, she served a combat tour flying F-16 jet fighters during the invasion of Iraq.
In 2007, she won a highly competitive one-year White House Fellowship, and from 2010 to 2012 served as a special advisor to Vice President Joe Biden for defense policy and intelligence programs.
She came to Fort Smith’s Ebbing Air National Guard Base in 2015 to command the 188th Wing as it transitioned from a jet fighter mission to its current mission – flying remotely piloted aircraft.
Previously, she commanded the 214th Reconnaissance Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. She was responsible for providing combat-qualified MQ-1 Predator drone aircrews in support of missions overseas, as well as domestic incident awareness and assessment in the United States.
Her arrival in Fort Smith was a promotion in more ways than one. The MQ-9 Reaper is a larger, heavier, faster and more capable craft than the MQ-1 flown by the Arizona unit. For example, it carries twice as many missiles and is powered by a turbo-prop engine vs. the piston variety on the older model.
The 188th’s 24/7 mission, as of August, includes combat and intelligence-gathering sorties, intelligence analysis and a targeting component.
Interacting with the community as an executive of one of its major employers, Col. Doorenbos serves on the Fort Smith Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and is a member of the Rotary Club of Fort Smith.
Before the unit transitioned to MQ-9s, the fighter wing’s manning document called for 999 personnel. With drones, the number increased to 1,003. About one-third of the positions are a full-time mix of civilian civil service technicians, who are also traditional part-time guardsmen, and active duty military known as AGR (active guard, reserve).
While employment has held steady with the new mission, the new skill set is literally off the charts. Col. Doorenbos has an immediate need for 111 enlisted and 37 officer positions, mostly for traditional guardsmen (part-time). The vacancies include 47 intelligence analysts, along with targeteers, communications (networking, infrastructure) slots and sensor operators. Other new roles at the 188th include geospatial analysts, signals analysts, intelligence fusion analysts, weather technicians and communications systems operators. The positions require advance training in fields ranging from computer science to geography to meteorology to cartography.
These positions bring a whole new set of high-tech skills to the Fort Smith area. Several units remained intact when the 188th transitioned to its new mission and offer the same highly-prized opportunities as before. These include civil engineering (construction and maintenance), fire and emergency services and a medical corps.
The latest available data for the year 2015 shows the 188th with a payroll of $40.9 million a year. The unit’s estimated economic impact on the area in that same time period was $58 million.
True to her Dutch ancestry, the colonel admits to being a “workaholic” who takes work home with her. However, she also finds time for bike riding, reading, beekeeping and is a wannabe woodworker with all the tools.
Col. Doorenbos considers her Fort Smith assignment the “absolute pinnacle of my career” and her job “the best ever, hands down!”
“People are welcoming and embracing,” she said.
It helps she drives less than 10 minutes to and from work each way, compared to more than an hour in the Washington, D.C. area. Plus, she is less than a two-minute drive from shopping, can always find a parking place and never fails to run into somebody she knows wherever she goes. The result is, in her own words, “I do not have road rage.”
Then there’s the cost of living advantage. The home she owns in east Fort Smith, with three bedrooms, two baths with a pool, cost less to buy than she paid to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the Washington area.
When this three-year assignment as 188th wing commander closes next year, new career paths will open. At age 47, with three years’ time in grade as a full colonel, Col. Doorenbos is younger than most candidates for general officer, but highly qualified.
She possesses an impressive resumé – the “sound of guns” as a combat jet pilot; a Master of Science degree in strategic intelligence from the National Defense Intelligence College; Air War College and Air Command and Staff College completion by correspondence; her Pentagon and White House assignments and group and wing command experience.
Because she remains on military leave from American Airlines, she has the option to return to flying commercial jets and continue to live in the Fort Smith area, as does her predecessor at the 188th, Col. Mark Anderson.
The colonel, however, is focused on her present command and a goal that would benefit this base and community: to land the actual MQ-9 Reaper here and make it part of the 188th Wing, along with its high-tech take off, landing and maintenance crews.The infrastructure needed to support the actual drones is already in place at the Ebbing Air National Guard Base. The hangar area contains jet aircraft maintenance bays, along with a nearby “hush-house” designed to muffle the noise associated with testing jet engines and a secure weapons storage area, all easily adapted to a drone mission since the craft are similar in size to jet fighters.
Stationing MQ-9s at the Ebbing Air National Guard Base would require a waiver to Federal Aviation Administration rules that prevent pilotless aircraft from flying over populated areas. It is an exception Col. Doorenbos believes is possible to obtain from the FAA because where the drones would fly training missions – in restricted airspace over the neighboring Fort Chaffee Joint Maneuver Training Center – is only four miles from the base runway.
The Chaffee facility has the assets of the Razorback Range, drop and landing zones, various mock villages, miles of woodlands and the Arkansas River. It is ideal for this mission’s training.
The new mission’s greatest impact on the 188th, however, is at the individual level. With jet fighters, it was necessary for the whole unit to go on an overseas deployment, usually lasting four to six months. Remote piloting mission allow “in-place deployment,” which translates to everyone remaining at home.
This article appears in the October 2016 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.