DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE — As a child played outside his home in 1968, two fighter jets suddenly roared into view. The boy watched in wonder while the speeding twin aircraft swerved toward him in unison, blasted overhead, and vanished again into the cobalt-blue California sky.
As the thin trail of exhaust dissipated in the summer heat, the boy’s life was forever changed.
“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 is set to retire this month after a 34-year career full of twists and turns of its own.
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 died due to kidney complications when Campbell was only 3 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,” Campbell said.
The colonel, who turns 62 this month, is a self-proclaimed talker who will discuss new ideas with anyone who will listen. He also spearheaded the development of the first mobile app used at the 94th Airlift Wing.
TOUGH LESSONFrom his new office at the 22nd Air Force Headquarters, Campbell reflected on the highs and lows of his career, which he credited 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. Under normal circumstances, he would have been transferred to work with missiles. But in a twist of fate, the school discovered an error and realized his orders had never been processed. As a result, Campbell was sent to navigator training at Mather Air Force Base in California.
He believes that error is what led to his longevity in the Air Force.
Upon arrival to navigator training, Campbell told himself he’d never fail anything again. 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 said. “If some of those events didn’t happen, the person you see wouldn’t be the same person.”
ACTIVE DUTYAfter graduating, he became 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.
The position was incredibly rewarding, Campbell said.
A highlight came during Red Flag at Nellis AFB, Nevada, a large-scale field training exercise that provides realistic combat experience in a controlled environment.
The exercise tested Campbell on several challenging, complex concepts. In 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 also had 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. His team killed Red Air and flew on to take out the target.
“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.”
AIR FORCE RESERVECampbell eventually retired from active duty and joined the corporate world for more than a decade. While he enjoyed and was successful in his civilian job, the “wild blue yonder” still beckoned and Campbell returned to the Air Force as a 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. He was known to outpace younger trainees during physical training and earned the call sign “Phantom,” a nod to the fact Campbell once flew F-4 Phantoms, which had long since been decommissioned.
Campbell served 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.
Campbell regularly speaks at community relations events such as Veterans Day parades and community leader tours around metro Atlanta, and community leaders often address him as “Phantom” instead of Col. 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 2018-19. “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!”
THE WILD BLUE YONDER
Campbell successfully applied for an age waiver to extend his Air Force career.
An age waiver for officers isn’t uncommon, Campbell explained, however, his case was different because he applied after he turned 60. He’s also a flyer, which is even more challenging due to strict health requirements. His approval process required an affirmative from both Lt. Gen. Richard Scobee, chief of Air Force Reserves, and Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett.
“I chose to extend because I felt I was not ready to go,” the colonel said. “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.”
Campbell is considering many different options to stay busy, including teaching flying lessons, working for the Air Force as a civilian or mentoring college students. And while his future may be up in the air, Campbell is sure of one thing: he plans to spend more time with his wife of 38 years, Kimberly.
“I’m looking forward to the next chapter in life and making it just as good and full as this last chapter,” Campbell said.