“There I was … at 7,000 feet … when …”
Many Civil Air Patrol cadets dream about completing a harrowing – but safely landed – flight. And retired Air Force Col. and former California Wing cadet Kim Campbell got to do just that.
On April 7, 2003, her A-10 fighter was hit by enemy fire. Much of the aircraft’s normal systems was destroyed, but Campbell manually piloted the crippled jet back to base safely – a rare feat considering the heavy damage. After the mission, she was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism.
Twenty years later, she brings that tale and other powerful stories of leadership and courage to audiences worldwide both in person and via her just-published book, “Flying in the Face of Fear.“
To hear Campbell tell it, it wasn’t just luck. The flying, the practice, and the planning for all those what if? scenarios are what paid off that day over Baghdad.
It started back in San Jose, California, when 12-year-old Campbell, who wanted to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy and join the Air Force like her father, saw Civil Air Patrol cadets walking in formation at her middle school.
Some of her classmates saw a chance to fly, and others saw the opportunity to see what military life might be like. For Campbell it was all about that uniform. She wanted to fly, saw CAP as the way to jump-start that childhood ambition, and joined the local John J. Montgomery Cadet Squadron on the spot.
“These cadets in uniform were my age, and I knew I had to be a part. It gave me an early start into what I wanted to do,” she said. Five years later, after numerous hours of hard work and practice, she made her first solo flight over San Jose.
“It was a thrill for me to fly. It’s hard to put into words, but to be in the airplane, to touch the controls, to have dreamt so long to get to fly and now it’s actually real.
“It was really cool.”
After being accepted into the Air Force Academy and training as a pilot, she was selected to fly the A-10. She credits discipline learned and early CAP experience in the cockpit.
“CAP is where I got my start. It let me try some things in becoming a leader at a young age. It was also an early indication this was something I enjoyed doing,” Campbell said.
CAP can help other young people achieve their goals and dreams, she said. “It’s invaluable for preparing you for the future. You get a solid understanding of what the military is about as well as the basics of wearing the uniform and learning to fly.”
Her advice to today’s cadets runs along the same lines.
“CAP offers incredible leadership opportunities and chances to move up in rank. Push outside your comfort zone and experience new things. Seek out something to do within your chapter, within your life. Put yourself out there,” she said.
To Campbell, that fateful day 20 years ago might have ended differently without lessons she first learned in CAP – lessons she still applies in life today: Prepare. Practice. Plan.
“Anytime you face something hard, the more you prepare, practice, and plan, the more qualified you are to handle the stress and fear,” she said. “Practice thinking through things that could happen. Think of what can go wrong, plan for what might happen, and you will be better equipped to handle the fear that comes with those situations.”
And fear is always there, Campbell said. It’s getting in the cockpit for the first time with your CAP instructor. It’s taking the stick for the first time. It’s soloing.
It’s part of life.
“Fear is a normal thing. We put so much pressure on ourselves – fear of change, fear of failure, fear of not being good enough. You have to acknowledge that fear and have a plan to deal with it.”
And when you follow through with that plan? “That’s courage — taking that leap, putting yourself out there, and then asking yourself – can I learn from it?”
And going back to that 2003 mission … “It’s coolness under pressure – all the training you do, all the hard things to prepare yourself for that one moment, you never know when it will be,” she said. “Because of the training, effort and practice I put in before … when the situation demanded it, I could execute it.”
Before Campbell retired from the Air Force, she served as director of the Air Force’s Center for Character and Leadership Development, which focuses on character and leadership development of Air Force Academy faculty, staff, and students.
“This was one job I really felt passionate about – where I really could make an impact on the next generation of Air Force leaders,” she said. “I feel everything, every job, led up to this one final role for the Air Force.”
As an alum of the academy and CAP and as an Air Force leader, Campbell is a true example of what all three exemplify in their core values – integrity, service and excellence. But the role model she identifies with the most?
“I loved being a fighter pilot and supporting the troops on the ground. I loved being a commander, a leader. The hat I wore at that time was the most important,” she said, “But I most identify with mom to my two boys. They are so much of who I am. My family is incredibly important to me.”
Looking back on her CAP experience, what she’s most thankful for is the friends she made. “These are friends for life – who are always supporting me, encouraging me. It’s the difference CAP cadets and alumni make in people’s lives, and I’m so grateful to the many who made a difference in my life.”
This profile of former California Wing cadet and retired U.S. Air Force Col. Kim Campbell is part of a series of articles showcasing how CAP has helped shape alumni’s lives and careers.