Retired Col. Kim “Killer Chick” Campbell on flying, fighting, and inspiring the next generation of aviators.
By Brent Hannify | July 8, 2022
Photos provided by Kim Campbell
hen Kim Campbell’s A-10 was hit by a surface-to-air missile over Baghdad, she faced an impossible choice.
She could bail out and send her jet spiraling into a city of 11 million people, causing immeasurable collateral damage and facing certain capture. Or she could go with Option Two: Steer the plane out of there manually and risk taking another hit from another missile and exploding in a ball of fire.
The Warthog’s hydraulic controls weren’t responding. As any fighter pilot knows, flying without hydraulics is like trying to steer a cement truck stuck in cement. Plus, she was still taking fire.
Kim chose Option Two. With fire and smoke spitting out the back of her aircraft, Kim wrestled the stubborn stick and throttle until she regained control, with AAA rounds chasing her on the way out of the kill box.
Landing the plane was nothing short of a miracle. One of her engines was damaged. Without hydraulics, she had to lower the landing gear with the backup emergency system, and her horizontal stabilizer didn’t feel right. When she finally got the bird down on the ground and got out of the cockpit, Kim finally had the chance to see the damage for herself. A vicious slash of bullet and shrapnel holes cut its way across the Warthog’s tail, and a massive, gaping tear exposed the internal mechanisms in her right horizontal stabilizer. By any logical estimation, the plane was unflyable and unlandable. Yet there Kim stood, on solid ground, her flight suit drenched in sweat, staring up at the damage that nearly killed her.
The story of Kim “Killer Chick” Campbell delivering close air support for soldiers under fire during the push into Baghdad, almost getting killed in process, and safely landing a severely damaged aircraft is the stuff of internet legend. We first learned of her flight on the blog badassoftheweek.com, a relic of the internet’s early days, when viral content required a little effort to read. (Those were the days, huh?)
“Frankly, I’m surprised the story keeps getting told,” she says. “It’s been 20 years and it keeps popping up.”
She goes on to speculate that perhaps the story’s recent resurgence had something to do with the new TOP GUN movie. Or maybe the idea of a hotshot female fighter pilot remains cool, no matter how many years have passed since the opening salvos of the War on Terror.
Or maybe it’s the plane itself. Spend any time in military social circles and you’ll notice an undying affection for the A-10, the flying machine gun that simply won’t stop kicking ass. The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, known affectionately as the Warthog—or just Hog—is a ferocious brute of an aircraft. First introduced into combat 50 years ago, its entire airframe is built around the iconic GAU-8 Avenger 30mm rotary cannon, a seven-barreled gun capable of firing 3,900 rounds per minute.
And despite years of efforts by the defense industry and congressional appropriations committees to replace it with more modern aircraft like the F-35, the Warthog is still flying, still fighting, and still inspiring.
“They were talking about retiring the Hog in the 80s, and then Desert Storm happened,” Kim recalls. “Then they started talking about getting rid of it again, then 9/11, and Operation Anaconda, and Iraqi Freedom, and on and on. It just keeps proving itself again and again.”
Like many a starry-eyed pilot-in-waiting, the A-10 was Kim’s dream plane. A 1997 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, she’s a woman who’s been in the air ever since her years as a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol. Kim’s dedicated her entire adult life to flying, and military service runs in her family. Her father, Chuck Reed, is a retired USAF captain. And her husband, Colonel Scott Campbell, whom she met in the academy, flew the Warthog just like her.
She flew 121 combat missions in the A-10, in the skies above both Iraq and Afghanistan. By the time she’d flown her last flight, she’d been promoted to squadron commander and finally group commander, where she oversaw thousands of airmen.
“They were talking about retiring the Hog in the 80s. But it just keeps proving itself again and again.”
After her final flight in the A-10, she returned to her alma mater and served as Faculty Chair of Airpower Innovation & Integration in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies. For her final assignment in the Air Force, she served as the Director of the Center for Character and Leadership Development at the Air Force Academy. She spent her professional and academic time preparing for whatever threats loomed on the horizon for the United States and mentoring the next generation of aviators and airmen to face it.
“When I was in the academy, I could not have fathomed an event like 9/11,” she recalls. “You don’t know exactly how the world is going to change, but you can put in the work to anticipate challenges and future threats.”
With every development in her career, the idea of leadership has always been on Kim’s mind. The very nature of it. What does it mean to be a leader? How do you build leadership skills and develop the character necessary to communicate them to those under your command?
To Kim, so much of what it means to be a leader boils down to trust. Trusting that those who are well trained in warfare will make the right call.
“I was a young pilot when I was hit over Baghdad, but I had a very experienced flight lead who trusted in my capabilities, and he trusted my knowledge of the airplane. That’s leadership to me.” She’s referring to Lt. Col. Rick “Bino” Turner, her flight lead that day.
Flying alongside her as her jet smoked and shuddered, he reminded Kim that no matter what decision she made, he would support her. Whether Kim bailed out of the busted aircraft or kept on flying, Bino would have her back.
“We don’t normally fly missions by ourselves. You always want a wingman at your side,” Kim says.
It’s been nearly two decades since Kim’s momentous flight over Baghdad, but the story is as inspiring was Kim’s personal mentorship of cadets in the Academy. When newly commissioned second lieutenants seeking careers in the cockpit came to her for advice, she always recommended choosing a mission, not necessarily choosing an aircraft.
Of course, the US military has a habit of ordering personnel wherever they’re needed, not necessarily where they want to go. But depending how much work you put in, Kim says, the Air Force will at least consider your dreams.
“The A-10 was absolutely at the top of my wish list,” Kim recalls. “But I got assigned to it not because I chose the plane, but because I chose close air support. I wanted to make that kind of difference in the mission. If you visualize the mission you want to do, and you put in the work to do it, there’s a good chance you’ll get what you want.”
Sure, there’s arguably nothing more incredible than flying a giant machine gun with wings into combat and unleashing 68 rounds per second on your target. But for Kim, the undeniable cool factor of flying the Warthog isn’t what sticks in her mind from her memories in the cockpit. It’s the close bond that ground troops feel to the plane and those fearless enough to fly it.
“You know you’ve done your job when you come back to base and someone’s left a note for you thanking you for saving their ass,” she says.
“As a close air support pilot, there’s nothing more rewarding than that.”