Episode 369: Flying in the Face of Fear with Col. Kim “KC” Campbell

Episode Summary

This week, our guest, Colonel Kim “KC” Campbell, takes us right into the face of fear flying 1,000 miles per hour at 45,000 feet of altitude. In her soon-to-be-published book, “Flying in the Face of Fear,” Kim narrates how facing the scariest situations as a fighter pilot transformed her views on leadership and teamwork. The inspiring colonel served in the Air Force as a fighter pilot and senior military leader for over 24 years. She is also a Keynote Speaker, a Best-Selling Author, and a Leader.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host. We have an amazing guest with us today. I’m so excited for her. She is a retired Air Force Colonel who served in the Air Force for over 24 years. She has flown 1,800 hours in the A-10 Warthog, including more than 100 combat missions protecting troops on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, Kim was even awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism after successfully recovering her battle-damaged airplane after an intense close air support mission in Baghdad. Welcome, Colonel Kim “KC” Campbell. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, we have so much in common because many of our listeners know that a couple of our sons were Air Force fighter pilots and very involved in the Air Force in so many ways, so we have a lot of connects. And I’ve been looking forward to this. And for our listeners’ sake, once again, we’re so excited to have you here. We’re honored that you would join us and listen in. Today will be worth your time. I think you’ll have some really great leadership insights, but just insights into humanity in general. So, here are a few other things about KC before we get going. You already know about her tenure in the Air Force — 24 years — that’s quite a stint. She is also a senior military leader. She is a keynote speaker, and best-selling author selling her story about a life-changing combat experience while weaving in fun ideas and lessons about leadership, teamwork, perseverance, and decision-making in stressful environments. I think we’ll hear about that today because I’m going to ask about it. And she has a new book coming out, “Flying in the Face of Fear: A Fighter Pilot’s Lessons on Leading with Courage.” It’s going to be available soon here and KC will talk more about that. So, let’s get going into our interview, KC. Tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. And how did you end up where you are? 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Absolutely. I’m gonna go back a bit if you don’t mind. My, I think, probably a life-defining moment for me, life-changing moment occurred in 1986 with the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. I was in fifth grade at the time and I remember watching the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger — so excited about the launch and learning about the astronauts. And then I think, as we all likely remember, it unfolded before our eyes in tragedy. But there was something about that moment for me that stuck with me in terms of this idea that the astronauts died doing something that they believed in, something that was bigger and more important than themselves, and I wanted to commit my life to that. It was just this idea of it that I could do something like that, that I would be so passionate about that I would be willing to give my life. I was in fifth grade, so it was a little bit hard for me to understand. I had a lot of conversations with my parents, thankfully. But there was also this thrill of flight, this exhilaration that came with all of it. So, after talking with my parents, I decided that I was going to go to the Air Force Academy and become a fighter pilot. And that was my goal, I set that in fifth grade. I think we all realize though that sometimes setting those goals is the easy part and then it requires a lot of hard work and determination to get there. I spent a lot of time throughout middle school and high school prepping for that and eventually went off to spend 24 years in the Air Force. I spent time as an A-10 pilot supporting our troops on the ground. And I also spent time as a leader of teams, large and small, as a commander. And thankfully was able to finish my career back where it started; at the Air Force Academy. I finished out as an instructor there and as the Director for the Center for Character and Leadership Development. So, I really felt like my life came full circle as it all came to pass. And over that time, I also became a military spouse, married to my husband, also an A-10 fighter pilot. He recently retired as well and we have two boys who are 10 and 14. And I will tell you that they keep us grounded more than anything. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, what a background. I love that. 10 and 14?  

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Yes.  

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, here’s the golden question: Do any of them have any desire to fly? 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Yes, actually, my older son is considering the Air Force Academy. He’s interested in being a pilot or an engineer. And then my younger side is interested in going to West Point, of all places, he would like to join the special forces. So, we’ll see how that all goes. It’s interesting to have one child be wearing an Air Force Academy sweatshirt and the other be wearing a West Point Academy sweatshirt. So, we’re all in. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, that’s great fun. And I’ll bet your dad, who was an Air Force Academy grad, he’s loving it.  

Col. Kim KC Campbell: He does. I think it’s been fun for him to watch. I will tell you, though, I think as a parent — now having experienced this myself — when I told my dad I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, this was 1986. And he went to the academy at a time where there were no women. And in 1986, when I said I wanted to be a fighter pilot, there weren’t any women fighter pilots, it wasn’t allowed. So, I think part of my dad was a little nervous that this was something that his little girl wanted to go do. But I think at the same time, he didn’t tell me I couldn’t do it, he just told me to go after what I wanted. But then he also helped me prepare, he helped me work hard and prep so that I would be ready to go to the Air Force Academy so that I could perform at my highest level. So, my dad has been definitely my role model and my hero, and he still is today, for sure. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’m sure this is of great interest to our listeners today. KC and I are revisiting a little bit beforehand some of these crossovers in the Air Force. So, our grandson, Robbie, son of our oldest son, is an Air Force ROTC and wants to be a fighter pilot. So, these crisscrosses will keep happening, and we are a grateful country for you, KC, and the Air Force Academy and the Air Force are grateful to have you for cutting new ground. I’ll bet that’s afforded you some really interesting perspectives. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: It certainly has. I think I realized early on with the help of my dad that the most important thing was to go in credible and capable, and the rest really didn’t matter. I showed up at the Air Force Academy, I maxed the physical fitness test within the first year, and I think that just set the groundwork for me that I could perform in the same way that all the men could do. So, I think it really just turned out it didn’t matter and certainly fly in a fighter. I mean, the jet doesn’t care about my gender, so I realized that the guys in my squadron didn’t care either. I was the only female fighter pilot in my squadron, but I really just went in with the same attitude. I was going to work hard, I was going to be credible, and the rest really took care of itself. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I love that. That’s a good lesson for all of us; to work on being credible and capable, and up for the task. I mean, that’s really what matters here. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Yeah, having a good attitude and going into it with that mindset that you are going to work hard, you’re going to have a good attitude, you’re going to maintain a good attitude, even when times are hard, even when there are those unfortunate mistakes and failures along the way, which are going to happen. And it’s all about what you do in those moments, I think, that matters the most. 

Steve Shallenberger: Let’s talk about your Air Force service — 24 years — it’s a long time and you’ve had a lot of experiences. Tell us about some of your most memorable experiences in the Air Force. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: I think when I think back on my 24 years in the service, there’s probably one event that stands out in my mind the most, and that is back in 2003, flying a close air support mission over downtown Baghdad. At this time in Operation Iraqi Freedom, all of our troops had surrounded Baghdad. It was a very high-threat environment for our troops on the ground. We were right there with them. Our primary job is to support our troops on the ground. And that day, we flew up to Baghdad just as we were always doing to provide that support, and we got a call that our troops on the ground were taking fire and needed immediate assistance. So we proceeded to the target area as quickly as we could. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t much help that day, and there were clouds covering Baghdad just as far as we could see. But the troops on the ground needed our help and we were going to do everything we could to get in there. So, my flight lead found a hole in the clouds, he dove through, and shortly thereafter, he said, “Alright, KC, it’s your turn, you can dive through the weather.” So I found a hole in the clouds and dove down through. And then when I got down below the weather, it was this scene that is not something that I had seen before. It was very surreal for a minute, because it was everything that we had trained for, everything that we had planned for, and I could see this firefight happening back and forth across the river, I could see tracers and smoke. And then at about that same time, I started to see these puffs of gray and white smoke, and then bright flashes in the air right next to my cockpit. And suddenly, everything got very serious. I realized that not only is there a firefight happening across the river, but now the enemy is also shooting up at us too.  

Col. Kim KC Campbell: We had a mission to do and so we continued with the mission. And we used guns and rockets on the enemy location. And we had decided that we would only do a couple of passes just to take the pressure off the ground troops, but then for us to be able to climb up and get our energy back. And coming off my last rocket pass, I just felt and heard this loud explosion at the back of the airplane and I immediately knew I was hit. There was a bright fireball and my jet nosed over pointing down at Baghdad below. I pulled back on the control stick and nothing happened, and my airplane is now plunging to the ground out of control. I remember looking down at the ejection handles and just thinking, “Not yet. This is the last thing that I want to do is to eject into the hands of the enemy.” So, I quickly did what we remember from our early pilot training days, which was I did my best to maintain aircraft control and then analyze the situation. I tried to figure out what was going on. I had a master caution light flashing at me. My whole caution panel was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was just so many problems with the aircraft, but I noticed very quickly that my hydraulic lights and the hydraulic gauges were at zero. The system was completely depleted, which meant that I was still plunging to the ground completely out of control. I knew that at this point, I really only had two options: One was ejecting, which I didn’t want to do, and the other was putting our jet into this emergency backup system. So I quickly flipped that switch. And thankfully, the jet started climbing away from Baghdad, which was finally like this moment of relief — and relief is such an understatement, but that is the word that I come up with — a relief of I think I could survive this, it was the first moment I thought I would make it out of there alive. 

Steve Shallenberger: You probably have all kinds of thoughts going through your mind. What was it like? 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: So there were roughly 20 seconds that happened when I got hit and to the point where I had enough awareness to start talking on the radio again and explaining what had happened. So, in that time, I really felt like things slowed down for me. I recognized all the things that were going wrong; I recognized, quite honestly, all the terrible things that can happen. But I knew I had to make a decision if I was going to survive, and I had to push those thoughts out of my mind and really just focus on what was most important in that moment, which was getting the airplane under control. I didn’t have time to open the checklists, I didn’t have time to ask for help. So, I was very thankful that my training just kicked in. All the preparation, all the training, everything that I had done at that moment, I feel like all the hard things I had done in my life came together at this one moment that helped me survive in a really difficult situation. Very thankful that the airplane operated exactly like it was supposed to, exactly as advertised, and was able to get me out of Baghdad, which, quite honestly was just the first step. Now I had to make it 300 miles, which is about an hour in the A-10, back to our home base and then make a decision about do I attempt to land this badly beat up, damaged airplane, or do I just get to friendly territory and eject? So, yeah, there was a lot on my mind for sure. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s a great analogy to life in general, and you had the presence of mine to take all of that training and follow your feeling to flip the switch. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: In life, I think if we are more prepared, we become more competent in what we’re doing, gives us confidence. And when things are going wrong, when everything is going all the ways you don’t want it to go, to be able to have that mindset, to be able to flip the switch should change the situation to give you a chance to move on and make a difference. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, in life, there are many of us who will be faced with an adversity, maybe not quite that intense, not into those last compressed seconds. But nonetheless, they can have many of the same parallels of feelings, and the stakes can be just as high. It could be a relationship, a critical decision that you’re making for life. So, what advice do you have for all of us in real life of keeping the presence of mind and just listening to your feelings and ultimately choose to flip the switch? What’s your thoughts about that? How can we be prepared and do what we feel like we ought to do? 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: I’ve had 20 years now to reflect on this, and I realized that that moment over Baghdad, I was scared. I didn’t know it at the time, I didn’t even have time to think about it, and honestly, I didn’t even want to admit it. But when I heard the fear and my voice over the radio, when I watched this back and listened to it back, I knew in that moment that I was terrified. But what I realized is that I was able to take action, I was able to make a decision, I was able to take action. And so I really reflected on why — how did I get to that moment and be able to make that decision, feel confident in my decision? And it really comes down to the fact that I had prepared for this mission, I had put in the work, I had practiced, and I had also planned for contingencies. I had thought about those things that could go wrong. Before the mission, I prepared, I studied my aircraft systems, I knew what would happen if they failed. We practiced intensely by doing simulators, but also by doing cheer fly, which is just a visualization technique where you can think through a stressful situation before it occurs. And then for me, I think planning for contingency is really taking the time to not just think about what might go wrong, but also what will you do in that moment, to have that advance thought. And I think when you take the time to prepare, you put in the work to practice, and then you take additional time to just take it that extra step and plan for contingencies, you’re so much better prepared for those moments. Whether it is a difficult conversation with a coworker, a negotiation, a presentation, a tough conversation with your teenager — no matter what it is, I think the more work you put in in advance, the better prepared you are to face that difficult stress, challenge, or fear. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, that’s great advice for all of us is to take this preparation, be prepared, and then pause and do some cheer flying, and then go for it. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Yeah, go for it and know that you have put in the work, you have put in the work to be good at what you do. And then in that moment, you’re feeling the fear, or the nervousness, or the anxiety or the stress, then just take a deep breath and know that you’ve put in the work to get there, to make it happen. 

Steve Shallenberger: Now, that’s what I wanted to talk about next. How do you face fear? How do you embrace fear? It’s a scary thing. Fear can be immobilizing for some people. So, how do you face fear and go forward in a positive way? 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: I think what I’ve come to realize over time. This isn’t something in the moment of being this fighter pilot. I think we have this idea that we have to be invincible, this tough exterior. And what I realized is that fear, nervousness, anxiety, and stress, all of those things are very normal reactions. So, what can you do with it? And I think first acknowledging that it’s a normal reaction, it’s going to happen. But having put in the work to be prepared in that moment, it’s all about taking action, it’s taking that first step, taking that leap of faith, knowing that you put in the work to be good at what you do that you put in the work to be prepared for those difficult moments. To me, that’s all about what it is you’ve got to take that step, you have to take action in that moment, acknowledge the fear, take that deep breath, and know that you put in the work. 

Steve Shallenberger: And then take action, go for it, and learn from it. It’s not the end of the world. You keep learning. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: When I think about those things that I wish I would have known when I was younger, and I’m not sure that, having kids now, I can say it over and over again. But I think it takes time to learn the fact that you are going to make mistakes, you are going to fail, things are going to go wrong — it is part of life. I think I was so worried about making mistakes, failing, or just not meeting expectations in the early stages of my career, I put so much pressure on myself. I mean, I put pressure on myself that wasn’t there from anybody else but I put that pressure on myself because I didn’t want to make mistakes, I didn’t want to fail, which is just not a realistic situation. So, acknowledge it’s going to happen. And then again, it’s what you do in that moment. How do you take those mistakes and failures and then learn from them so that you don’t do it again the next time? These are conversations that I have with my teenage son all the time, and I’m not sure that it gets through to him either. I think it’s just something that takes time, and over time, you realize that you are going to make mistakes, you are going to fail. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to be perfect, and just ensure that you have the ability to learn from those mistakes and failures. 

Steve Shallenberger: I think that’ll give encouragement to me and every one of our listeners. So, thanks for bringing that up. Our son, Steven, was in Weapons School, which is the top guns school for the Air Force. And they were on a bombing range. It was the real deal. They were out there hitting targets. Now, they’re in the heat of battle, really in, and Steven bombed the wrong target. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: I think we’ve all been there in training for sure. 

Steve Shallenberger: And he thought, “Oh, man, they’re gonna so draw me out of here.” And maybe someone wouldn’t have known but he went back and told his commanding officer what had happened. It’s the failure, but his commanding officer says, “Thank you for having the courage to tell me what happened.”  

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Absolutely. He took ownership of it, acknowledged it, and I bet he learned some pretty good lessons from it too. 

Steve Shallenberger: No doubt, that’s for sure. KC, you’ve had the opportunity to lead teams of thousands of people, what are some leadership lessons that you’ve learned that have worked well for you, and that are important from your experience? 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: It’s interesting. I think my leadership ideas have evolved over time as well. I think when I got my very first command when I had the opportunity to command — and this was about 150 airmen — I had this idea that as a fighter pilot, I had been to combat, combat-proven fighter pilot, this tough exterior. I had this image of what I thought I should be or how people expected me to be. And then at my change of command ceremony — this is a formal ceremony that happens before you take command of a unit. So, I’m going in there, and I have this very formal speech plan and just these ideas of what I think I should be and how I should act. And about five minutes into the ceremony, maybe a little bit longer, my three-year-old son is sitting in the front row with my husband, he’s just bored out of his mind and so he decides that he’s going to get up and he starts taking a few steps getting closer and closer to the stage. And of course, I’m kind of freaking out internally of what my team is going to think of their new commander. I mean, I get it, I’m also a woman and there’s this perception, and I’m worried about what people are thinking of me. My son doesn’t care about any of that. And he finally makes his way, gets up on stage, and sits down right in my lap, in the middle of this very horrible change of command ceremony.  

Col. Kim KC Campbell: In that moment, there was definitely fear and nervousness about what my team was thinking. But I also had this realization, as I looked down at my son, who was just content to be there in my lap, I realized “I’m human, too. I don’t have all the answers. I have my own challenges.” And it was this realization that I think my team needs to see me for who I am — I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m a fighter pilot, I’m a leader, I’m all of these things. And it was at this moment that my three-year-old son taught me of just showing the human side of leadership that you can be strong and you can be compassionate, you can be tough and you can be kind. And I’m thankful I had this opportunity with my son to teach me these lessons. I’ll tell you, I was still nervous about what my team was thinking. But the day after the ceremony, I walked around the unit to just talk to people and get to know them. And the one thing that came up in every discussion was this conversation about my son that they realized that it may be human, it connected me with my team in a way that I think I certainly wouldn’t have done otherwise. It was this idea of being a little bit vulnerable, showing who you are to create connections with your team. And I have taken that lesson with me well beyond this command, to the point of taking it with me as a group commander, where I was in charge of more than a thousand people, just showing that human side of leadership and taking the time to connect with your team.  

Steve Shallenberger: And I bet they loved it. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: They absolutely loved it. 

Steve Shallenberger: It’s not something they see all the time. And sometimes we worry about being comfortable being ourselves. I mean, we are who we are. And these restraints, they brought us to where we are. How have you found that you can be comfortable with yourself to get to that point? Because it’s actually a strange, 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Yes. It’s not easy. It’s easier to say than it is to do sometimes. I look back to that moment walking into a fighter squadron on day one knowing that I was going to be the only female, knowing that I was one of 35 female fighter pilots in the entire air force out of about 3500 — rough numbers. I put so much pressure on myself to fit in, to be part of the team. I really worked hard at it, but I also put this pressure on myself because I didn’t want to ruin it for all the other women. Those are my words. Nobody put that pressure on me, that pressure I put on myself. Over time, though, you realize that you are who you are. And being a woman, being a mom, being a wife, those were all strengths. It allowed me to create connections with my team. But it does take some time to come into your own and to be able to stand up for who you are and what you believe in. But I agree with you, they are strengths. It’s just it takes time, and it’s something to work out, just being a little bit uncomfortable. I’ll be very honest, it is still hard for me, it still makes me a little bit nervous to be vulnerable in a leadership scenario, to show that trust first to take that leap of faith, but it’s so much better, in the long run, to just be who you are. Honestly, that’s what my young airmen wanted for me was to just be me, and it created these bonds of connection and trust that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.  

Steve Shallenberger: Being vulnerable is sometimes hard to do, but however, it is being human. And when we’re real, when we’re willing to be vulnerable, which isn’t always easy, you have to kind of trust yourself, I think people see that and they appreciate it. Has that been your experience? Because they’re human. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Absolutely. I think there’s a way to create connections by just being human, by being a little bit vulnerable. I think back to some moments and command, and I think back to just being able to check your ego at the door, to take the time to learn from your team. I loved walking around, talking to my team, letting them show me their expertise, and letting them teach me. I had a bunch of civil engineers that I was in charge of. I’m a fighter pilot, I don’t know civil engineering. And yet, my young airmen were so excited to teach me how to drive a front loader. And the thought of getting on that front loader, knowing that I might make a mistake or do something wrong, but my youngest airman jumped up on the ladder and was so excited about teaching me. I did my best, but I don’t think they’re gonna hire me on that team. But taking that time to just set your ego aside, learn a little bit from your team members, and show them that you value what they bring to the table, I think it just creates connections, it builds trust, it creates an environment where your team is willing to bring you ideas, give you feedback, they’re willing to speak up about problems because you’ve created this environment of trust. So, I think there are so many benefits to being vulnerable, to checking that ego, and knowing that you might not do it perfect, you might not do it great, but you’re willing to do it for your team. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s awesome, people appreciate it as well. Well, I’m always amazed at how fast these interviews go. We’ve had some really wonderful ideas, tips, and thoughts that you’ve been generous enough to share from your experience. And before we sign off today, we’ll hear a little bit more about how people can find out about you. But any final tips of leadership, human relations, or anything that you think might be among the most important things our listeners could hear from you today? I’d love to have you share them. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: When I look back at having spent 24 years in the military, my time in service, and my time leading teams, I think if I were to sum it up, it all comes down to acting with courage and leading with courage, because we all face fear in our lives, we face those moments that make us feel stressed or causes to worry where we might be afraid to act. And it’s all about what we do in those moments that matter the most. It’s not just about life or death situations, it’s not just about flying fighters over Baghdad in combat. Fear is fear. It’s fear of change, it’s fear of the unknown, it’s fear of not meeting expectations, it’s all of these things, and these are normal reactions that we all face. So it is all about what you do in those moments. It is about having the courage to take action. It is about having the courage to have a difficult conversation, to make decisions when you don’t have perfect information, to get out and connect with your team, and to be vulnerable to show the human side of leadership. It all comes down to what you do in those moments when you are scared that matter the most. 

Steve Shallenberger: Wonderful. What a great interview and fun visit today. Tell our listeners how they can find out about you, KC. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Yes, and I would love for people to reach out and connect with me. They can find more information about me on my website, which is I’m also on LinkedIn, Kim KC Campbell. There are a lot of Kim Campbell’s out there, so the KC helps differentiate me out there. Also, on Twitter or Instagram, @kchawg987, which is my aircraft and my tail number from Baghdad — so, a little bit of story to go with it. And then perhaps what I’m most excited about is my upcoming book, which will be out on March 8, “Flying in the Face of Fear: A Fighter Pilot’s Lessons on Leading with Courage.”  

Steve Shallenberger: I’m so excited to get that. I’m going to get both the book and the audible and have some fun with it. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Awesome! Well, I can’t wait to hear what you think. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, it’s been a delight having you with us today. We wish you the very best not only for the service you’ve rendered but for the things that you continue to do. You’re making a difference, KC. 

Col. Kim KC Campbell: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. 

Steve Shallenberger: You bet. And to all of our listeners, thank you for joining us today. And we wish you the very best today and always. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader.

Colonel Kim "KC" Campbell

Bestselling Author

Keynote Speaker, Fighter Pilot, Combat Veteran, Redited Senior Military Leader

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