CJP 2021 Keynote: Adapting a “Fighter Pilot Mindset” Emphasizing Continuous Improvement
U.S. Air Force Colonel Kim “KC” Campbell recounted her harrowing experience as an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot over Iraq in an engaging keynote presentation on the second day of CJP 2021.
Over her 24-year career, Campbell accumulated more than 1,700 hours in the A-10 (also called the “Warthog”) including more than 100 combat missions protecting troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, she received the Distinguished Flying Cross after successfully recovering her battle-damaged airplane following an intense close air support mission in Baghdad during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Before telling the audience about that incident, however, Campbell recalled competing in a Top Gun bombing competition as a young pilot. Despite performing nearly all the assigned runs with greater precision than her competitors, she lost out on the top prize due to a single error.
“Just before the award ceremony, my weapons officer found me in the hallway,” she recalled. “‘K.C., you missed winning the Top Gun competition by one degree. Your bomb scores were good, but your safe escape maneuver was off by one degree.'”
That maneuver, a maximum-performance climb away from the bomb blast, “has the potential to be catastrophic,” she continued. “But still, I’m in shock and I’m sure the look on my face said it all. And so I asked, ‘Does one degree in training really matter that much?’
“And [the weapons officer] decided to teach me some lessons in that moment that would stay with me for the rest of my career,” Campbell said. “Precision matters. Small errors matter. And we must continually strive to improve by learning from our mistakes. That was a hard lesson for an ever-confident young fighter pilot.”
It was also a lesson Campbell took to heart, forming the basis for what she termed “a fighter pilot mindset and a fight for continuous improvement.” And, seven years later, it likely saved her life over Baghdad.
“It’s Monday, April 7, 2003,” she recounted. “I am a nighttime pilot assigned to the 75th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. And on this day, just like every day, I’m meticulously planning to support our troops on the ground.”
Shortly after taking off from Kuwait, Campbell and her wing were quickly called to lend air support. “The enemy is on the east side of the Tigris River,” she said, “and they’re firing rocket-propelled grenades into our forces. We’re given a target to strike underneath the North Baghdad bridge … [using] guns and rockets on the enemy location.”
Campbell’s jet was rocked by enemy fire just as she pulled away after firing seven rockets on the enemy location. “I pull back on the control stick [and] nothing happens,” she said. “Absolutely nothing. I quickly try to analyze the situation: Master Caution Light. Hydraulic pressure reservoir, hydraulic gauges are at zero. The system is depleted. It is completely empty.”
The plane was still flying, though, so Campbell focused on “making every second count” to get out from behind enemy lines. “I set aside my fear, I regain my composure, and I engage the backup emergency system,” she said. “The airplane slowly starts to climb out and away from Baghdad. And that is the first moment I feel like I can make it out of there alive.”
Unaware of the extent of damage to her plane, Campbell “didn’t even have time to open a checklist; I just had to react. And thankfully, our training kicked in.”
While her initial priority was to make it far enough away from the fighting to bail out over allied territory, Campbell slowly gained confidence in piloting the plane and even landing it under “manual reversion,” a condition that’s “not something we trained for at all.
“In fact, the checklist for ‘Manual Reversion: Landings’ says to, ‘attempt under ideal conditions,'” she said. “I don’t actually know how you can be in this type of emergency and have an ideal condition!”
However, thanks to proper planning, guidance from her wing leader and the support from her maintenance team, Campbell continued toward base and practiced the landing sequence at altitude before turning toward final approach.
“Sixty feet to go. I cross the landing threshold and the airplane starts a quick roll to the left,” she said. “My heart skips a beat. ‘Am I gonna crash? Is the airplane gonna flip over on its back? Do I even have time to eject?’ I quickly get the stick back and the airplane levels out.
“Thirty feet to go,” Campbell continued. “‘Please let me make it 10 feet.’ Almost there, just hold it steady. Main gear, nose gear, the airplane is on the ground. The fire trucks are rolling toward me, and I slowly bring the airplane to a stop.”
Once out of the plane, Campbell surveyed the extent of damage. The missile had struck the right horizontal stabilizer, sending shrapnel into the fuselage and tail that also cleaved both left and right hydraulic lines, depleting the system instantly. “My flight lead never told me this, but apparently pieces of the airplane were actually flying off as we made our way back,” she added. “I appreciate that he didn’t tell me that.”
Despite the unique circumstances and that the mission was “essentially a success,” Campbell emphasized her team nevertheless performed the standard post-flight debrief to identify areas for improvement.
“A debrief ensures that we’re not so rigid that we can’t change,” she said. “It ensures that we’re flexible for an ever-changing environment. When we focus on that continuous improvement – that opportunity for learning – it ensures that we’re prepared for the next mission.
While that A-10 never flew again (“there were really too many holes and too much damage to try to fix it in theater”) Campbell was back behind the controls of another A-10 the very next day, continuing to assist troops on the ground.
“The best part [of that April 7, 2003 mission] was hearing the guys from my squadron over the radio,” Campbell said. “I will never forget the words of encouragement that I heard from them that day. ‘Nicely done, KC. Welcome home.'”