"I was on one of the last Bear missions," D'Ron Campbell, 47, of Saratoga says. "It was maybe 1994 when they (the Russians) — before open skies — were still poking us.
"We were launched with F-15 fighters," she says. A Bear mission focused on the interception of Russian nuclear bombers. During the Cold War, Soviet bombers would constantly probe the outer edges of U.S. airspace to test the reactions of the American military and practice making nuclear bombing runs.
Campbell is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a former pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and was discussing her time as an aircraft commander of an E-3 Sentry AWACS plane in Alaska.
When she was in the Air Force, women were not permitted to fly in combat, but Campbell says she got plenty of invaluable experience flying the E-3 in Alaska, including time spent in drug interdiction operations and her run-in with the Russians under fighter jet escort. Being in the military also taught her how to deal with stressful times in uniform and out, and gave her perspective on the rapidly changing sociopolitical reality facing the U.S.
But ultimately, it was tennis that led her to the Air Force.
Campbell said that, growing up, she did not have any intend on pursuing a military career. She attended high school in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she was a serious tennis player. At some point in time, a recruiter came to her offering her the chance to play tennis at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Campbell jumped at the opportunity.
"I got my engineering degree, and I got to play tennis," she says.
She started at the Air Force Academy in 1988, and graduated in 1992. "In my senior year, they asked, 'Do you want to fly planes?'
"I said, 'Yeah.'"
Campbell went off to flight school in Lubbock, Texas, and eventually became a pilot on the E-3 AWACS aircraft. The E-3 is built off the airframe of the Boeing 707 airliner that dates back to the late 1950s. It is most distinguishable by the large flying-saucer shaped radar dome that is mounted to the aircraft's spine.
The plane's job is to act as a flying radar station, detecting enemy aircraft and vectoring U.S. and Allied fighter jets to intercept incoming "bandits."
"They say that air traffic controllers on the ground keep planes apart," Campbell says. "Those people (the controllers in the back of the AWACS planes) put planes together."
An E-3 has 4 people in the cockpit: two pilots, one engineer and one navigator. There are also about 20 to 30 people in the back operating the radar, communications and tactical systems. Campbell started out as a "right-seater," the aircraft co-pilot before transition to her role as the aircraft commander, or "left-seater."
The aircraft, designed in the 1950s as an airliner, is mostly devoid of the newer technologies enjoyed by pilots of more modern aircraft. These niceties include glass cockpits and fly-by-wire systems that have largely eliminated the position of engineer and navigator in many modern large planes.
"It was all dials," Campbell says. Most of the technology the plane is famous for is in the back where the radar technicians, controllers and ELINT (electronic intelligence gathering) people worked.
The E-3 stays aloft for long periods of time, too, making AWACS duty a game of endurance. Campbell said the average sortie was about 10-12 hours of flying time, and that did not include time spent on the ground planning and in briefings.
Even though, as a woman, she was barred from flying combat missions by government regulations, there was one war she and her air crew could fight; the war on drugs.
The War on Drugs
During Campbell's service, drugs such as cocaine were streaming into U.S. markets despite the efforts of law enforcement agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency and US Customs to prevent that influx. Soon, the military got involved by bringing some of its high-tech equipment to front line of the drug war.
High-tech equipment like Campbell's E-3 AWACS was one of the big players in the war on drugs.
Based out of Alaska, the E-3 would fly south to Howard Air Force Base, a former US air base in Panama. From there, the E-3 would fly drug interdiction missions using its powerful airborne radar system to identify the small general aviation aircraft that the Colombian cartels typically used to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.
The planes were often small, piston-powered planes that were converted into flying gas cans so they'd have the range to cross the Gulf of Mexico and enter US airspace. Some even tried flying as far north as Alaska to look for gaps in the U.S. radar net that would allow them to enter the country without being detected, Campbell says.
Because of the high-tech nature of the E-3, many details of the missions flown by the planes and their crews are classified, Campbell said, but on average the E-3 would stay aloft for 10-12 hours where they would follow a path through the sky, resembling an orbit.
"That part was kind of boring," Campbell said, recounting how the aircraft would essentially fly in circles for hours. "One of our patterns in Alaska was over Denali, though, so that was kind of interesting to see."
But, as any aviator will tell you, there's nothing routine about any mission, especially in a combat aircraft that patrols the skies for unfriendly aircraft trying to enter US airspace, whether they be Soviet Era Tupolev TU-95 Bear Strategic Long-Range Bombers equipped with nuclear weapons, or a Beechcraft Baron 58 loaded with a few hundred kilograms of cocaine.
Just like she never planned to go into the Air Force, other things would soon happen that taught her that nothing is routine.
Substitution changes life
"We met through our friends dying," Campbell said about her husband Jason, whom she met while in the Air Force.
She was preparing to make a flight as the co-pilot on an E-3 Sentry, she said. It would have been the last flight of the Air Force's fiscal year, on Sept. 22, 1995. Campbell says she spent time the day before doing flight planning and was slated to be the right-seater on the mission, but at the last minute another officer decided to replace her in the co-pilot's seat of the E-3.
Under the call sign Yukla 27, the E-3 lifted off from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. Within a few seconds of takeoff, the plane ran into a flock of Canada Geese. Two engines on the aircraft's left side were struck by geese and flamed out.
The plane crashed and exploded less than a mile from the end of the runway in a wooded area. All 24 crewmembers aboard were killed.
"I was supposed to be on that aircraft that day," Campbell says, adding that the close call changed her and how she dealt with things. "I stopped taking myself so seriously, and that was a big part of it. I was so wound up and it all brought it all home."
Yukla 27's command pilot was a friend of Jason, an Air Force C-130 pilot with whom he had played rugby at the Air Force Academy. Campbell met her husband because of the death of mutual friends in an air crash.
Campbell also changed jobs not long after the E-3 crash. She became an instructor in the T-1A Jayhawk training plane, a variant of the Beechjet/Hawker 400 private jet. The T-1A trains pilots to fly the Air Force's heavier aircraft such as tankers and transports.
Campbell would train young lieutenants in the T-1A for about five-and-a-half years before she decided to resign her commission in the Air Force. She and her husband, she said, had decided to start a family and the time commitment of two parents in the Air Force would have been a lot for the children to deal with.
Campbell resigned her commission and came to Saratoga to start her life as a civilian, and soon she hoped, as a mother. But some things you just can't plan for, and things don't always go to plan.
Campbell probably wasn't thinking of the unexpected and how it can change things when she served her last day in the Air Force on Sept. 10, 2001.
Both sides of military life
"I was at home in Saratoga on Sept. 11 when the phone rang," Campbell says. It was the Air Force, telling her she had to come back to active duty. She went back and trained more pilots in her T1-A for a year, she said.
Then she went home to live a new life as a military spouse. Her husband, she says, was called up on the day of 9/11 and ordered to fly his plane around the country transporting blood for the Red Cross which was desperately trying to get badly-needed transfusion blood to New York City and Washington D.C.
By January, her husband was flying missions in Afghanistan. He was there for nine months, giving Campbell ample time to become accustomed to her new life as a military spouse.
"When he was over there it was before Skype and before cell phones really," she says. "I rarely got to talk to him and it was hard not knowing what was going on when they were over there fighting."
Campbell went from being an Air Force officer in charge of a crew and a multimillion-dollar aircraft to a military spouse who was left at home to worry about her husband, wondering if he was OK and hoping for a spare moment when he might be able to make a quick call home.
"That was stressful, sitting here in little Saratoga wondering what was going halfway across the world, especially since tech wasn't where it is today," she said. "They were in the thick of it over there."
But her time in the military taught her how to handle stressful situations in uniform, and those same coping skills help her out in her civilian life.
Hours of boredom
punctuated by sheer terror
Of everything she learned serving her nation in the military, Campbell says that the most valuable thing she took away from her military career was the ability to adapt and deal with stressful and unexpected situations.
"Flying is hours of boredom with seconds of terror," she says. "It's learning about how to cope with things that are thrown at you."
Campbell says that the discipline instilled in people by regimented military life is a great tool for people to help deal with stress and uncertain situations. "All the training that I had has enabled to me deal with all the ups and downs that occur with life," she says.
And the one thing that seems consistent in military life is change. When she flew for the Air Force, women were not allowed to fly in combat. Today, they are. Campbell, who has two sons and two daughters, says she would have no reservations at all about recommending a military career to any of her children.
"I liked the structure, the people, I liked the idea of patriotism and defending what our ideals are for the nation," she says. "I probably would have stayed in, but my life took a different direction-I met my husband and we started having children."
Through it all, Campbell dealt with all the changes. Today, drugs are now smuggled into the U.S. from Columbia via miniature submarines. The cartels, it seems, got tired of seeing their drug planes intercepted by planes after being spotted on the AWACS planes' powerful passive electronically scanned array radar system.
As for the final Bear mission that Campbell flew, even those stopped after the fall of the Soviet Union and the ratification of "Open Skies" treaties that have opened the airspace of the former Cold War rivals.
Courtesy D'Ron Campbell
The E-3 Sentry is based off a Boeing 707, a 50s-era jetliner. The cockpit is a far cry from the computerized glass cockpits of modern aircraft.
"When they did have the open skies, the Russians came to Alaska," Campbell says. "They had their head general visit (Campbell's base in Alaska) and I was the designated to sit on the plane and give them a tour."
The Russian General was touring an E-3 AWACS plane that was usually under armed guard and for which the former rival's intelligence services would have given anything to tear apart and study. But, he was more interested in Campbell than any of the high-tech instruments in the E-3, she says.
After the tour, the Russian general and his aides left the cockpit. Campbell, just sitting in the cockpit says she heard a terrible commotion behind her. The Russian general entered the aircraft cockpit and handed Campbell the flight wings from his uniform coat, complete with the soviet Red Star emblazoned on the top.
"He hands me his wings because he's never met a woman pilot before," Campbell says.