CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
Senior Airman Daniel Petrushev, 27th Special Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, will be shipped to Officer Training School this April. It’s the first step in accomplishing his dream of commissioning that began in Riverside, California.
Currently working at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, Petrushev is aiming high to become a U.S. Air Force pilot, an opportunity crafted from years of striving for success, failing and getting back up again.
It’s part of his journey as a first-generation American to become an astronaut, a very different reality than what his parents had to live with escaping communist Bulgaria 30 years ago.
Ever since they arrived on U.S. soil with two bags of luggage and $40 in their pockets, Daniel Sr. and his wife, Pam, had to make do with washing windows and living with welcoming strangers in coastal California. The early 90’s were a rough place for foreigners with little money. As Daniel grew up in this era, he was constantly reminded of his socioeconomic status.
“People made fun of my name, of my nose; whatever they could do to remind me I was different,” Daniel said.
However, he was determined to make the most out of what he had. Daniel attended University of California Irvine, and throughout college, he tried to learn more about his family but realized there were barriers.
“I can’t talk to anyone in my extended family because they don’t speak English,” Daniel said. “My family is my mother, father and sister. That’s all I’ve ever had to communicate and connect with.”
Despite having a small circle of family to connect with, they played an active part in his life, through childhood and adolescence.
“I remember there was this silly contest at my elementary school to see who could sell the most chocolates, and my parents really pushed me to try my best,” Daniel said. “We won first place two years in a row, and as a result, my family and I went to Disneyland together. It was one of my best memories with my family.”
But he had to be strong himself to eventually graduate from UCI, and in doing so obtained his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. Soon afterward, he landed his first job in a material science lab, which was cut when the facility shut down. From there, he decided to try and commission with the U.S. Air Force to begin his journey as a pilot, with the goal of eventually becoming an astronaut. It was a six-month competitive process to apply to Officer Training School, one that ended with the abrupt answer of “you didn’t make it.” Daniel didn’t want to wait another six months to try a second time, so he enlisted as an air traffic controller.
According to Daniel, the experience of controlling the runway will help him transition into being the one taking off from it.
“I’ve always felt kind of lucky getting [air traffic controller] because that job helps with [being a pilot],” Daniel said. “I feel like these are a bunch of puzzle pieces lining up somehow and, now being accepted to become a pilot, I hope to become experienced in the job, then apply to become an astronaut.”
Since arriving at Cannon AFB, he’s pulled his own and then some. Part of the reason he was selected for commissioning is due to the respect and trust he’s earned in the tower.
“I’m a witness of his work eithic… he embodies the Air Force core values,” said Master Sgt. Fernando Garcia, 27th Special Operations Support Squadron tower chief controller. “There were times he was frustrated, times of not knowing how to proceed and times where he felt a lack of support from his own peers. But never did I see him give up.”
As he got to know Petrushev, Garcia learned about his early life obstacles. It only earned more respect from him.
“He attempted to pursue [becoming an astronaut] straight out of college but experienced a setback that many individuals would accept as defeat; Petrushev only saw it as a delay,” Garcia explained.
The words of encouragement that Garcia gave Daniel throughout his time at Cannon AFB helped him maintain focus on the mission, stay true to himself and pursue his dream, Daniel said. That dream, now nearly one step closer to becoming a reality, isn’t just a cool job, but a way for him to reconnect with his roots.
“One thing about astronauts is that they have to learn different languages before being sent out,” Daniel said. “The most important languages to learn are English and Russian, the latter being similar to Bulgarian. I hope I will be able to communicate with family members I’ve never been able to talk with before.”
As he prepares to be sent out to Alabama for OTS this April, Daniel reflects on the fact that although his origins didn’t make anything easier for him, his determination got him where he wanted to be. Now, he’s experiencing opportunities he wouldn’t have had without the Air Force. He still has some time to go, but this year marks one step closer to the dream he’s pursued for years.