COLORADO SPRINGS — Retired Air Force Col. Kim Campbell shows us a piece of the tail from her A-10 Warthog on display in her Colorado home. Her plane never flew again after an enemy fire hit it as she was flying in a battle over Baghdad on April 7, 2003.
"This is my aircraft," said Campbell as she showed us a painting depicting where her plane was hit. "It was hit here, this is where the middle impacted and then it sent shrapnel into the fuselage and tail section here."
The pilot known by her call sign "KC" which stands for "Killer Chick" was on a mission to protect troops getting fired at on the ground in Baghdad. it was only a few weeks after Operation Iraqi Freedom began.
"Our friendly troops, it was the 3rd Infantry Division, were on the west side of the Tigris river, and then the enemy, the Iraqi Republican Guard, was on the east side of the Tigris river," she said. "We could actually see them firing rocket-propelled grenades into our troops."
Campbell immediately launched seven rockets down on the enemy, hitting her target.
"We did a couple of passes with guns and rockets," she said. "We also realized this was a fairly high-threat situation. We were down below the weather, and we could see that these puffs of gray and white smoke and bright flashes were next to us, so we knew that they were shooting up at us, too, but we had a mission to do."
Seconds later she was hit. The plane was out of control. The enemy was still firing at her.
"I pulled back on the stick to try to get it to climb, and it did nothing," Campbell said.
Campbell had to use what's called manual reversion.
"I was in this emergency backup system," she said. "I had no hydraulics on the airplane and that airplane was really hard to fly. I’ve heard other pilots compare it to driving a dump truck or semi-truck without power steering."
Campbell says the next hour was one of the most physically and mentally demanding of her life. Her flight lead, or wingman, flying next to her. He was her only eyes to tell her just how badly she was hit. Her thoughts raced to stories of three other pilots who had to make similar landings. One did not make it.
"I hit about 60 feet above the ground and that’s when the airplane just started a quick roll to the left and that moment my heart skips a beat, I’m not sure what’s going to happen," she said. "It’s this moment of 'Am I going to crash? Do I need to eject? What’s going to happen?' and I just yank the stick up quickly and thankfully the airplane leveled out. The main gear touched down and the nose touched down. It was a big feeling of relief."
Relief and awe that she made it out alive.
"I remember there were all these Marine firefighters there to greet me, and they were looking at me and looking at the jet," said Campbell. "We were all in shock just seeing this jet, dripping with hydraulic fluid and charred from a fire that had happened at some point. It was just shocking that I could still keep flying."
Campbell's heroism later was recognized with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the nation's highest award for extraordinary aerial achievement.
"For me, more than anything, what means the most is the thanks from the ground troops and the letters I have received from ground troops," said Campbell.
Gratitude for a mission that saved lives and for a plane that kept going through the battle.
"It was designed to take these hits while performing its mission," said Campbell.
Colonel Campbell was back in the air on a mission the next day. She ended up flying more than 100 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan during her 24-year-long military career.
If you want to hear more of her story, you can read her newly released book Flying in the face of fear: A fighter pilot's lessons on leading with courage.
Watch KOAA News5 on your time, anytime with our free streaming app available for your Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and Android TV. Just search KOAA News5, download and start watching.