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Two people stand near airplane.
Photo Credit: Laura Gerwin
Col. Denise M. Donnell, left, discusses mission requirements for the New York Air National Guard. She is the first female commander of the Air Expeditionary Group for Support Forces Antarctica.

Making a difference

Donnell first female commander of Air Expeditionary Group for military in Antarctica

Col. Denise M. Donnell has chased pirates in the South China Sea and flown all manner of aircraft, from the sub-hunting P-3 Orion to the massive, cargo-carrying C-5 Galaxy. But perhaps one of the best parts of her job brings her to Antarctica each austral summer.

The first female commander of the Air Expeditionary Group (AEG) for Support Forces Antarctica, Donnell oversees all the moving parts of the military support – known as Operation Deep Freeze – at McMurdo Station in coordination with the National Science Foundation, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program.

“The sense of being part of something bigger than yourself, whether it is the National Science Foundation or the New York Air National Guard, is a pretty incredible feeling and one of the best things I have got out of being in the military,” says the pilot, wife and mother of two. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime to be in Antarctica.”

When not on the Ice, Donnell is the commander of the 109th Maintenance Group of the 109th Airlift Wing at Stratton Air National Guard Base in New York. The 109th Airlift Wing works to support the 139th Airlift Squadron, which is tasked primarily with flying the ski-equipped LC-130 across the continent. The position of AEG commander rotates among several officers during the season.

Denise Donnell
Photo Credit: Laura Gerwin
Col. Denise Donnell

The daughter of a Navy doctor dad and a Navy nurse mom, it just made sense to go to Georgetown University, graduate in international politics and become a pilot. After falling in love with a former Army Ranger and moving to New York, Donnell flew with the Air National Guard before accepting the position of group commander.

“One of the best jobs in the Air Force is maintenance officer and pilot,” she explains. “You just can’t beat that combination. I get to fly the airplanes and work with the guys who fix them; it’s the best of both worlds.”

This non-traditional role is a bit like having two full-time jobs, but Donnell feels it helps give her a better perspective. The colonel has flown a variety of aircrafts: the P-3 Orion sub-hunter, the C-5 Galaxy, the C-17 Globemaster and the LC-130 Hercules to name a few.

“The C-5 is big and opens both from the front and back, and the C-17 is just cool,” she says.

Her strategy for balancing family and career is getting eight hours of sleep a night and having a supportive husband. Maintaining a sense of humor and situational awareness also helps to keep a balance. When not far from home, Donnell loves to hold her kids’ hands and is on her way to hiking the highest 46 peaks in the Adirondacks, having summited three so far.

She also wants to learn how to play the piano, laughing as she says, “We own a piano and that’s the first step.”

Two people inspect aircraft.
Photo Credit: Laura Gerwin
Col. Denise Donnell, right, oversees maintenance of an aircraft.

Donnell says she thinks her role in life as a mother and military officer gives her children a sense that they can do whatever they want to do in life.

“Any working woman or working dad needs to give their kids a sense that anything is possible,” she says. “I can be a pilot and a commander in the military and deploy to Antarctica.”

The deployment to Antarctica is unique for her because most of the people aren’t in the military but work in other areas of support or research. Donnell says she finds it refreshing to be at McMurdo Station due to the diverse population.

“You have people here that have biked across Asia or have worked on archaeological digs,” she says. “It is exciting to hear a different perspective on life; it’s fun and it makes you think.”

Other favorite deployment moments include flying the Orion P3 during a surface surveillance mission chasing pirates in the South China Sea, and being launched on a search and rescue mission to find a stranded sailboat with three people aboard.

“Locating them and dropping supplies with about 15 minutes of fuel left to execute the mission was pretty awesome and rewarding,” she recalls.

Donnell’s role in the military, as a woman, is a rare one.

“I've never considered myself to be a trailblazer. I’ve just worked as hard as possible to be the best pilot, officer, and commander that I can be,” she says. “I have been part of something pretty awesome. Something bigger than myself: It makes a difference if Denise Donnell gets up and comes to work.”

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Office of Polar Programs