April 7, 2003. The fourth day of the nine-day Battle of Baghdad. Fighting rages across the fire-swept Iraqi capital as American and Allied soldiers and Marines storm through the rubble-strewn streets, taking heavy fire from the deeply-entrenched, ultra-hardcore, fanatically-dedicated warriors of President Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard – battle-hardened troops committed to fighting a desperate last stand, dying where they stand with their fingers still on the trigger in a badass blaze of glory. Gunfire and explosions rip through deserted skyscrapers and apartment buildings as the toughest troops Iraq has to offer desperately cling to the last vestiges of their crumbling empire.
A little north of downtown proper stood the North Baghdad Bridge – a critical crossing over the mighty Tigris River that absolutely had to be taken and held if the Allies wanted to have any chance of cutting off enemy reinforcements and capturing the city.
The task was given to the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division – hardcore, boots-on-the-ground asskickers who's marched across the country and were now finally getting the chance to kick a little ass.
The Third stormed through the city, reaching their objective thanks to a few well-placed grenades and a couple hundred thousand rounds of 5.56mm NATO full metal jacket ammunition, but now things were getting a little hairy. On the far side of the bridge, holding the objective a mere 400 meters away, was a pissed-off swarm of Republican Guard elites, entrenched in heavily-fortified positions, looking to kick ass. As the first American soldiers set foot over the Tigris they were greeted by a barrage of RPGs and heavy machine guns zeroed-in on the choke points across the bridge.
An epic gun battle raged as the two sides opened up on each other, but as more and more RPG fire barreled down on American lines it didn't take long for the officers of the Third Infantry to realize they weren't going to take this bridge without taking heavy casualties.
So they called in air support. Which, in this case, was 28 year-old Captain Kim Campbell of the 75th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron – callsign "Killer Chick" – and her A-10 Warthog.
I've already written a love story about the 'Hog on this site, so it should come as no surprise that I think this is one of the most insanely-hardcore death machines ever fielded by any army in history – and you kind of have to assume that any time someone piloting one of these hardcore jets gets a callsign like "Killer Chick" they're pretty fucking serious. An Air Force Academy grad, Campbell was one of just 50 women fighter pilots in the USAF in 2003. She was already on her way in from Kuwait on a mission to fuck up some Republican Guard tanks and artillery, but when the call came down that American troops were in deep shit she immediately peeled off, opened up her throttle, and set a course for Explosionville.
Campbell fought through a dust storm, coming in hard over Baghdad, which at the time was still mostly under enemy control. When she got near the coordinates, she dove down through the cloud cover, the wide-open blue skies immediately being replaced with a burning city, raging fires, explosions, tracer fire, and RPG contrails streaking towards American troops. Diving down through anti-aircraft shrapnel bursts all around her, Campbell had mere seconds to size up the battlefield, which is no easy task considering that she was traveling a couple hundred miles an hour through a ridiculously-chaotic warzone, pick out a camouflaged series of targets a mere 400 meters from friendly lines, and dive straight down, nose-first into it in order to unleash a massive barrage of death from the epic nose cannon on her mighty beast.
I probably don't need to explain that diving cockpit-first into a swarm of Republican Guard regular infantry armed with RPGs and heavy weapons is marginally dangerous, but this wasn't Captain Campbell's first rodeo – she was on her second tour of duty, she'd already logged hundreds of hours of combat flight time, and she wasn't about to sit there and let a bunch of assholes take potshots at her countrymen.
Campbell dove her Warthog at a steep angle, straight at the enemy, opening up the throttle full and unleashing a few thousand 1.5-pound bullets from the 19-foot long GAU-8 Avenger Gatling Gun strapped onto the nose of her jet in the matter of seconds, then cranking the stick hard, pulling insane Gs, and hauling up out of there.. To give you some idea of the carnage this thing can bring, here's a video of the Avenger ripping apart Soviet tanks.
The GAU-8 Avenger.
On her final pass, Campbell unleashed her compliment of 2.75-inch high-explosive rockets, liquidating her target in the process, but immediately drawing the attention of roughly every single anti-aircraft weapon in Iraq at the time. Bullets pinged off her armor as she hammered the stick back, airbursts of AA fire exploded around her, and RPGs streaked past her cockpit.
Then, suddenly, a huge explosion rocked Captain Kim Campbell's A-10, shaking the entire jet violently. A surface-to-air missile had struck the plane's tail, riddling the fuselage with hundreds of shrapnel holes, shredding the tail and the engine cowling and blowing out the hydraulics and horizontal stabilizers (note: these are all important parts of an airplane). The plane shook, rolled left, and Campbell found herself pointed nose-first at the city of Baghdad, spinning to the Earth in a death-spiral, her caution panel screaming at her, her controls completely unresponsive.
In a split-second, Campbell realized she had two options – eject, let her multimillion-dollar jet explode in the heart of a city of 11 million people, and risk almost certain capture by Iraqi troops, or fight, try to regain control, and risk failing and dying in a towering fireball.
She fought. And, since the brakes, steering, rudders, flaps and flight gear were all failing to respond, she cut the hydraulics and switched over to manual piloting mode. For those of you who don't know what that means, here's a picture:
That's right – it is literally a series of wires tied to rudders and flaps that you manipulate by hand-cranking on cables, and now Captain Campbell was pulling herself out of a tailspin by piloting a multi-million dollar fighter jet fucking Wright Brothers-style.
Somehow, miraculously, she regained control using this wires-and-cables bullshit – a method of flying that A-10 pilots practice exactly ONCE during their training – pulled out of a dive, straightened the 'Hog, and then proceeded to fly over downtown Iraq in a ridiculously-crippled aircraft basically held together by duct tape and bumper stickers while a couple hundred AA guns took potshots at her.
Oh, here's some shots of the damage on the plane:
So... yeah. Despite a few close calls, Campbell stuck with her wingman, made it over the city, got back up above cloud cover, and then proceeded to manually steer her aircraft back to her base in Kuwait. She could have theoretically ejected over open ground and been rescued by friendlies in Kuwait, but on her way home Captain Campbell decided, fuck it, I'm bringing this sucker home in one piece. She then proceeded to attempt a manual landing.
Manual landings had been attempted exactly twice before this. The first time, the pilot crashed and died. The second time, the plane broke in half and caught fire and the pilot was only saved when fire crews pulled him out of the blaze. And now Kim Campbell was trying to do it with a plane that looked like Charlie Sheen's fighter at the end of Hot Shots.
I wish I had some dramatic shit to insert here, but according to her flight lead, "she landed in manual more smoothly than I landed with hydraulics." It was a three-wheels-down, textbook landing, despite, you know, the plane basically falling apart, and the next morning Campbell was out there flying close air support for a rescue mission over Baghdad like nothing had happened. She'd go on to serve three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and fly 375 combat hours, which is like 15 and a half seasons of 24.
For her actions in April 2003 – both eliminating an enemy position that was "danger close" to friendly troops and her ability to fly home with wires and cranks – she received the Distinguished Flying Cross and got a commendation from the South Carolina legislature. Of course, none of that even came close to the paper napkin that a soldier from the Third Infantry left for her in her ready room later that week. It had a simple, hand-written message on it: "If it hadn't been for you guys I wouldn't still be here."
|"Those are the risks you are going to take to help the guys on the ground. That's our job. That's what we do. Our guys were taking fire and you want to do everything you can to help them out."
Aircraft Resource Center
Operation Iraqi Freedom Hero Shares Her Story
Capt. Kim Campbell