At the helm: New 20th Fighter Wing commander wants to take Shaw Air Force Base to new heights

Posted 1/22/19

Col. Derek J. O’Malley’s roots to Shaw Air Force Base trace back to before he donned his first Air Force uniform. A framed photo on the wall in his office tells the tale. His father, …

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At the helm: New 20th Fighter Wing commander wants to take Shaw Air Force Base to new heights


Col. Derek J. O’Malley’s roots to Shaw Air Force Base trace back to before he donned his first Air Force uniform. A framed photo on the wall in his office tells the tale. His father, stationed at Shaw in the '60s, throwing his infant son into the air. It was the new commander of the 20th Fighter Wing’s ‘first flight.’ Now, at his first base as a commander, O’Malley is trying to take his airmen to new heights.


The top dog of the 20th Fighter Wing can be spotted on any given day parking to­ward the middle or back of any lot on Shaw Air Force Base.

All the colonels and chiefs, too.

The lack of designated parking spaces for those with the highest rank at the base in Sum­ter is not a mistake and not a random act. Re­moving parking space privilege, reducing ad­ministrative meetings to favor trust in squadron commanders and telling airmen’s stories, many of whom are 18, 19 and in their early 20s, on so­cial media are just a few of the ways Col. Derek J. O’Malley is trying to empower the men and women stationed at Shaw and create a positive culture at his first assignment as a wing com­mander.

“Why do I need a parking space? Why does rank afford me some privilege? I can walk to the commissary or wherever. Rank gives me more of a responsibility to take care of more people,” O’Malley said as he sat in his office on base, surrounded by memora­bilia, documents, awards, photos, and a couple Star Wars statuettes in the corner, all representing his personal and military life. “You’re going to tell the airmen, the young pregnant airmen, that you need that spot more than her?”

O’Malley, or “Maestro” as his call sign designates (we’ll get to where that came from later), arrived at Shaw in June 2018, having previously served as vice com­mander of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Two hurricanes later, one of which included taking in dis­placed airmen and their families from a decimated base in Florida, the Albuquer­que, New Mexico, native and identical twin brother (we’ll get to that later, too, in the Maestro story), O’Malley has had time now to reflect on his being commander of America’s largest F-16 Fighting Fal­con combat wing and to look ahead to his goals for the base during his time in Sumter.

“Being vice commander at a much smaller wing, we didn’t have as many planes or people, but we had lots of at­tention and lots of resources,” he said. “You come to the true combat Air Force, and people are working very hard. Our jets are deployed all the time. Our peo­ple are deployed all the time. And when we’re home, we’re working very hard for the next combat deployment. And I was not prepared for that pace.”

He said his philosophy is different than what Shaw may have seen in the past, than what he has seen in his wing com­manders as he came up the ranks.

“The greatest gift I can give my com­manders is time to maneuver. My squad­ron commanders know far better than I do how to get their units ready … I’ve empowered them, and I trust them to make sure that we’re ready,” he said.

He gives base leadership the param­eters and the goals. Constant combat readiness has been, is, and will continue to be the goal. Train, exercise, plan so that when the time comes and Shaw’s air­men are called, they have the resources, the knowledge and the training to win.

“A lot of meetings that happen in fight­er wings I’ve been a part of my fighter pilot life, we do not do those,” he said. “So, the downside is there is not as much communication back to me, but if you just give them time and space, they will be more effective.”

O’Malley is asking why instead of sim­ply continuing with what has always been done just for the sake that it has always been done.

“We don’t always stop and go, is this making us better? Any time I make my commanders be in a room, I make sure that time is very well spent. And if it’s not, then I cancel it,” he said.

A piece of paper rests under the glass in O’Malley’s desk. It’s the only document in there. The note, from his predecessor, Col. Daniel T. Lasica, says, ‘Valor One, command without fear.’ O’Malley knows he can use his position and his power to compel results from people. But that’s not how he wants to win. And whatever he does, whatever way he chooses to lead, he keeps that note in mind. Do it with confidence.

“I want it to be in a way where they can also be successful tomorrow. I don’t want to burn out the airmen. I don’t want to run our jets into the ground. I want to fly at a reasonable pace so they’re ready for combat. I want us to fight in a sustainable way,” he said.

The airman who has wanted to fly an F-16 since second grade, the airman who is now leading the fighter wing where his father was stationed as a maintenance officer in the '60s, is not one to change tradition or introduce a new way of doing things for no reason. He said he is trying to break down barriers and create a posi­tive culture on base.

What better way to bridge a gap be­tween a wing commander and the young airmen he leads than selfies and social media? Seriously.

“I am on social media a lot, and my posts focus on being kind to one anoth­er,” he said. “My generation is not as comfortable with selfies and things like that. I was reluctant at first and thinking it’s too much about me. My predecessor and I even talked about it, and I was like, I’m not going to do that. But now I’m go­ing to keep doing it.”

This, coming from the airman who sent a hand-written letter to a woman on a friend’s suggestion that, to combat the awkwardness of writing to a stranger, said they should be married immediately. He even named a date. They beat that date, and he and his now-wife have that letter framed.

He now goes around base telling sto­ries of individual airmen, and O’Malley – who has a son at Sumter High School – said they seem to be receiving it well.

“I’m trying to do things I always wish my wing commanders before had done,” he said.

Oh, the Maestro and the twin?

His brother, Collin, is three minutes old­er than O’Malley. Collin is a professional musician and often composes and con­ducts for Disney World in Orlando.

He had a concert in Orlando when O’Malley was a lieutenant that was host­ed by then-President and now the late George H.W. Bush. O’Malley said his brother wrote a piece called “The Pilot’s Hymn,” and he got to fly his F-16 to Or­lando to see the concert.

“They bring us up on stage and hand me the baton, and I just got caught up in the moment,” he said.

He starts to “conduct.” The band, knowing their real conductor was stand­ing next to the man in his Air Force uni­form, played along. The crowd chimed in and clapped along.

“I was doing flips and twirls,” he said.

If you know something about the TV show “Seinfeld,” you can get the picture. If not, just know you don’t need your legs to be in the air to conduct.

“It’s important for the airmen to see me as I really am,” he said. “I never knew my wing commanders, and that’s OK, as long as you know your squadron command­ers. But it’s also good … This life is hard. We’ve got to be good to each other.”