Air Force Maj. Kim Campbell told the story of a close-air support mission she and her flight lead flew over Baghdad on April 7, 2003.
"We were originally tasked to target some Iraqi tanks and vehicles in the city that were acting as a command post,” she said, “but on the way to the target area we received a call from the ground [forward air controller], saying they were taking fire and needed immediate assistance."
The Thunderbolt II is a single-seat, jet-propelled, air-to-ground-support aircraft. Campbell was accompanied on her mission by another Thunderbolt jockeyed by the flight lead pilot, whose job is to get the aircraft to the target and then decide the appropriate tactics and weaponry to employ against the enemy.
Once over the target area, Campbell and her flight lead descended below the clouds to positively identify the friendly troops and the enemy's location.
"We could see the Iraqi troops firing [rocket propelled grenades] into our guys," she said. "It was definitely a high-threat situation, but within minutes my flight lead was employing his 30 mm Gatling gun on the enemy location."
The two-plane formation of A-10s then made several passes over the enemy location, employing 30 mm rounds and high-explosive rockets.
"Yes, there was risk involved, but these guys on the ground needed our help," Campbell said. "It's what any A-10 attack pilot would do in response to a troops-in-contact situation. That's our job -- to bring fire down on the enemy when our Army and Marine brothers and sisters request our assistance."
After her last rocket pass, Campbell was maneuvering off target when she felt and heard a large explosion at the back of the aircraft.
"There was no question in my mind," she said. "I knew I had been hit by enemy fire."
The jet rolled violently left and pointed at Baghdad, and it wasn't responding to Campbell's control inputs. This, she said, is when her flight training kicked in and she was able to react quickly.
After realizing both of her hydraulics systems were impaired, Campbell said, she had to put the jet into manual reversion, a system of cranks and cables that allow the pilot to fly the aircraft under mechanical control.
"It was my last chance to try and recover the aircraft or I would be riding a parachute down into central Baghdad," she said.
The jet responded and started climbing out and away from Baghdad.
The two aircraft maneuvered south to get out of the city. Anti-aircraft artillery fired at the jets from every direction.
"I couldn't do much to keep the jet moving, so I was hoping that the theory of 'big sky, little bullet' would work in my favor," she said. "Amazingly, we made it out of Baghdad and above the clouds with no further battle damage."
Due to the design of the A-10, Campbell said, she couldn't see the damage to her jet. Her flight lead flew closely beside her and performed an initial battle damage check. He told her she had hundreds of small holes in the fuselage and tail section on the right side, as well as a football-sized hole on the right horizontal stabilizer. Campbell said she then ran several emergency checklists and knew she had a decision to make.
"I could stay with the jet and try to land it or get to friendly territory and eject," she said.
With several positive factors on her side at that moment, such as the jet responding well and an experienced flight lead on her wing providing support, Campbell said, she was confident she could get the jet back safely to her base, nearly an hour away by flight.
As she approached the base, the crash recovery team was waiting for her, along with rescue helicopters in case she had to eject. She was able to safely land the jet and stop it, using the emergency procedure for alternate breaking.
"I was impressed," said Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Millen, chief of the 355th Fighter Wing Commander's Action Group here and an A-10 pilot. "Kim landed that jet with no hydraulics better than I land the A-10 every day with all systems operational." At the time of this incident, Millen was the chief of safety for the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing.
After she landed, Campbell said, her jet became the center of attention, as everyone was eager to see the damage.
"Both of my crew chiefs did tremendous work on that jet, and it performed better than I ever could have expected," Campbell said. "We put an incredible amount of trust in these guys, and they do great work."
As part of her presentation, Campbell -- a 1997 Air Force Academy graduate -- showed photographs of the damage [see cover photo].
"I am incredibly thankful to those who designed and built the A-10, as well as the maintainers who did their part to make sure that jet could fly under any circumstances, even after extensive battle damage," she said.
The next day, Campbell said, she returned to flying, supporting a search-and-rescue mission for a downed A-10 pilot near Baghdad.
"I never really had time to think about the fact that I was going back to Baghdad, where just the day before I had escaped a possible shootdown," she said. "In my mind, the only thing that I could think about was that I had a job to do. I knew that the search-and-rescue alert crews were there for me the day before, and I was going to do the same for this pilot."
Campbell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. A year-and-a-half later, she deployed again, this time in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. She has amassed 375 combat hours during her career.
Source: US Department of Defense