A career worth a thousand words: Colonel Campbell reflects on career in aviation

  • Published
  • By Andrew Park
  • 94th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga. – The year is 1968. A young child plays in the green grassy front yard of a Los Angeles home. Without warning, two fighter jets roar into view. As the boy looks on in wonder, the speeding twin aircraft swerve toward him in unison, blast overhead, and vanish again into the cobalt-blue California sky. All that’s left behind is a thin trail of exhaust dissipating in the summer heat. Patrick Campbell’s life would never be the same.

“From that moment on, you couldn’t take that (amazement) away from me,” said Col. Patrick E. Campbell, 22nd Air Force director of operations, who retired earlier this week after a 34-year career full of twists and turns of its own. Most remarkably, Campbell successfully applied for an age waiver to keep his dream alive.

An age waiver for officers isn’t uncommon, Campbell explained. His case was different, however, as he applied after he turned 60. He’s also a flyer, which is even more challenging due to the strict health requirements. His approval process required approval from both Lt. Gen. Richard Scobee, Chief of Air Force Reserves, and the Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett.

“I chose to extend because I felt I was not ready to go,” said the colonel. “There was much to do and, indeed, after I retire, there will be plenty of things for my replacement to do.  Also, I wanted to see our Airmen deploy in January and then to be here when they returned in June.  I felt that would be a fitting end to my career.”

Reflecting on the time he watched those two jets fly overhead, Campbell remembered making the connection that his father was in the Air Force as were the two jets. He never had the opportunity to discuss the military with his father though, since he tragically died due to kidney complications when Campbell was only three years old, but seeing a photo of his father in an Air Force uniform provided the initial inspiration Campbell needed to become a military aviator.

“Everybody knew from junior high to high school that I was going to join the Air Force,” said Campbell.

The colonel turns 62 this month, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he carries himself. He’s a self-proclaimed talker who will energetically discuss new ideas with anyone who will listen. He’s also an innovator. He spearheaded the development of the first mobile app used at the 94th Airlift Wing.

From his new office here at the 22nd Air Force Headquarters, Campbell reflects on the highs and lows of his career, which he credits as being equally responsible for molding him into the commander he is today.

Campbell was initially rejected by the Air Force Academy, but attended a preparatory school and later transferred into the Academy. Upon graduation, he attended flight training, but washed out after having difficulties landing.

At this point, fate played a major role in Campbell’s future as he and the others who washed out were to be transferred to working with missiles. One by one, each of his peers received orders for missile assignments, but Campbell’s orders were nowhere to be found. He asked about his orders, and the school discovered an error and realized they had never been processed. As a result, Campbell wasn’t scheduled to attend missile training with the others. Instead, he got orders for navigator training at Mather Air Force Base, California.

“Had it happened in October, I would’ve been at Malmstrom in a silo someplace,” said Campbell. “But since it happened in December, I got to go to Mather in January.”

He believes now that if his fate were different he wouldn’t have made a career out of the Air Force.

Upon arrival to navigator training, Campbell told himself he’d never wash out of anything again. And with that, he excelled at navigator training and graduated at the top of his class.

Although he admits failing out of pilot training brought him to tears, he recognizes the importance that failure made in shaping him.

“What you and everybody else sees when they see a successful person is really the summation of all those years of life and those hard lessons learned prior to that moment,” Campbell explained. “If some of those events didn’t happen, the person you see wouldn’t be the same person.”

After graduating, his childhood dream finally came true. He was now flying high in the sky in the backseat of a supersonic jet as an electronic warfare officer on the F-4G Wild Weasel, a variant of the F-4 Phantom equipped with anti-radiation missiles used for taking out enemy air defenses and radars. The Wild Weasel flies ahead of a formation to bait enemy radars, and once the enemy takes the bait and turns on their radars, the pilot fires anti-radiation missiles to destroy it, allowing the rest of the formation to enter the airspace undetected.

Being an EWO was incredibly rewarding, said Campbell. His shining moment came during Red Flag at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Red Flag is a large-scale field training exercise that provides realistic combat experience in a controlled environment.

The exercise tested Campbell on a lot of challenging, complex concepts. For one, he had to manually control the radar to determine a contact’s aspect ratio, speed, altitude, etc. Since the missiles launched from the rear of the plane, Campbell would also have to navigate so the pilot could orient the plane accordingly to accurately hit the target.  

During the exercise, Campbell was the flight lead for a group of four F-4G Wild Weasels. Red Air, the code name for the aircraft simulating enemy forces, included the F-15 and F-18 fighter jets, two brand-new aircraft at the time. Campbell picked up Red Air on his radar when they were about 30 miles out. He then had to position the four ship with quick radio calls, divvying up the inbound enemy planes among the formation. Campbell remembers hearing the radio calls afterward and noticing how sharp it was. Everyone was working as a team. They killed Red Air and flew on to take out the target. The mission was a success.

“That really was the culmination of all those years of frustration and learning and screwing things up,” Campbell said. “It just made it all right at that point in time.”

He continued flying in the backseat of the Wild Weasel before eventually making the difficult decision to separate from the military and try his luck in the corporate world, which he did for more than a decade. As much as he enjoyed his civilian job and found success in it, there always seemed to be something missing. He decided to return to the Air Force, this time joining the Air Force Reserve.

In 2006, Campbell attended the U.S. Air Force Weapons School for advanced training in aircraft weapons and tactics as a navigator on the C-130 Hercules in the Air Force Reserve. Toward the end of the course, the cadre assigned call signs to the trainees. As the oldest trainee, he should’ve been an easy target for call signs such as “Grandpa” or “Moses,” but it didn’t quite seem fitting since he regularly ran circles around the younger trainees during physical training. Once the cadre discovered he flew F-4 Phantoms, which had long since been decommissioned, they knew they could poke fun at his age while still respecting his high-speed nature.

Campbell now serves at the 22nd Air Force Headquarters, just up the road from the 94th Airlift Wing Headquarters, where Campbell was recently the 94th Operations Group commander. Under his command, the 700th Airlift Squadron and the 94th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron deployed several times in support of contingencies around the world. They also participated in a number of national and international exercises to further enhance tactical airlift mission capabilities.

One of the colonel’s proudest moments was seeing his team bonding over a water survival exercise in Key West, Florida. He wanted everyone to go, not just the flyers.

His goal was for everyone to work with another unit to build more cohesion. Additionally, Campbell empowered his squadron commanders to plan the different portions of the trip. As a result, attendees not only learned water survival, but how to work together as a team.

His focus on people and teamwork knows no bounds.  His reputation expands beyond the gates of Dobbins. He regularly speaks at community relations events such as Veterans Day parades and community leader tours around metro Atlanta. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear community leaders address him as Phantom more often than Colonel Campbell.

“Since meeting Phantom in 2016, he’s been actively involved with the Honorary Commanders Association,” said Christine Reliford, Cobb Chamber’s HCA co-chair from 2018-2019. “He was our go-to guy when we needed anything coordinated with the Air Force and was always willing to participate when we needed military advisement. He’s been a phenomenal counterpart for the last few years and we sure are going to miss him!”

As his career nears the end, he’s considering many different options with nothing set in stone. He might get a fixed base operation with small airplanes to teach people how to fly. He might return to working for the Air Force as a civilian. He might mentor college students and talk with them about their futures. Throughout the uncertainty he is sure of one thing: he plans to spend more time with his wife of 38 years, Kimberly, who has had to make many sacrifices during his lifelong military career.

“I’m looking forward to the next chapter in life and making it just as good and full as this last chapter,” said Campbell.

After the door closes behind him, he’s ready to fly high with the winds of change and to once again let fate be his navigator.