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Captain Campagna

From West Point to Commanding Aircraft Carriers

Photo above: CAPT Paul F. Campagna ’93 on the USS EISENHOWER aircraft carrier.
In a rare and amazing event, Petaluma, California native, CAPT Paul F. Campagna ’93 assumed command of the USS EISENHOWER aircraft carrier on December 17, 2020, at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, becoming the first grad to command an aircraft carrier.

After completing the U.S. Army Aviation Officer Basic Course at Fort Rucker, Alabama in 1994, Campagna was designated an Army Aviator and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he served as a platoon leader in D Troop 2-17 Cavalry, Aviation Brigade S-2 and qualified as an OH-58C Pilot in Command.

CAPT Campagna was flying OH-58Cs in 2-17 CAV, 101st Airborne Division as a platoon leader when the Army was transitioning to the OH-58D. He was not selected to transition and would have probably been done flying. There were some officers in 1-101st who were doing an inter-service transfer to the USAF to fly helicopters, so CAPT Campagna started researching it along with CAPT Mark Kempf ’93 and LCDR Thomas Paudler ’93. They found that the regulation was normally used for chaplains and doctors, but it was not exclusive. The Air Force said they would take them as helicopter pilots, and the Navy told them they could go to flight school and fly whatever was available. They were lucky to have had the support of the 2-17 CAV commander, LTC Roberson, who had almost transferred to the Coast Guard when he was a captain and understood their desire to continue service helped get the packages endorsed. They were soon joined in the application process by CAPT Bobby Baker ’93, and within a year, all were in flight school in Pensacola, Florida.

They all went on to fly carrier aircraft, with CAPT Campagna and CAPT Kempf deploying together on USS CARL VINSON (CVN 70) when 9/11 happened, and CAPT Baker and CAPT Campagna were roommates in the same squadron on USS ENTERPRISE (CVN65) in 2006 and did the flyover for the Army-Navy Game later that year in F/A-18Cs.

Photo right: Left to right, CAPT Campagna, LCDR Tom Paudler, CAPT Mark Kempf and CAPT Bobby Baker soon after they transferred to the Navy in 1996 standing in front of a T-34, the prop plane they all trained on in Navy primary flight training at Whiting Field near Pensacola, FL.

After an interservice transfer in 1996, Campagna completed replacement pilot training in the F/A-18 and was assigned to the “Warhawks” of VFA-97 deploying with USS CARL VINSON (CVN 70) Campagna was in the Indian Ocean when 9/11 happened, and his first combat experience as a fighter pilot was flying missions during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) a month later. He flew a Rescue Combat Air Patrol mission over a medevac on one mission, only to find out later it was a classmate on the ground who was injured. Fast forward 20 years, and he is now commanding an aircraft carrier supporting the withdrawal of forces, making CAPT Campagna one of the few folks in the Navy who was both at the beginning and at the end of the conflict, first as a lieutenant, now as the commander of a carrier.

Next, he reported to Naval Aviation Warfare Development Center in Fallon, Nevada, where he served as an air wing training instructor, joint terminal attack controller, and F-16 model manager. Campagna then reported to the “Sidewinders” of VFA-86, where he deployed with USS ENTERPRISE (CVN 65) flying combat sorties in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Photo left: CAPT Campagna in the CO on IKE.

In 2007, he reported to USSCOCOM in Tampa Bay, Florida, where he served in the J35 as an action officer. He deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008 as a fire support officer for task force operations in Balad, Iraq. He reported to the “Valions” of VFA-15 as the executive officer and assumed command in 2011, deploying the squadron with USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH (CVN 77) in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. His squadron was awarded the 2011 Battle ‘E’.

In 2012, Campagna attended the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government as a Resident National Security Fellow. After completing nuclear propulsion training, he served as the executive officer of USS GERALD R. FORD (CVN 78). He then commanded USS LEWIS B. PULLER (ESB-3) BLUE from January 2018 to May 2019, deploying for two Fifth Fleet patrols on the Navy’s first Expeditionary Staging Base. His most recent assignment was on the Naval Operations N98 Staff as the aircraft carrier requirements branch head from May 2019 to March 2020.

Campagna’s personal awards include the Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Individual Air Medal with combat “V,” and various other individual and unit awards.

Photo right: CAPT Campagna piloting the USS Eisenhower down the Suez canal on April 2, 2021 right after it was re-opened, and the bridge in the distance is the Peace Bridge between Egypt and the Siani, constructed so a CVN can fit through with 8 feet to spare!

Campagna was the first pilot to command the Navy's Afloat Staging Base in the Middle East, USS LEWIS B. PULLER (ESB 3), and has landed on five classes of carrier (Constellation, Kennedy, Enterprise, Nimitz and Ford): “It was great to finally land on FORD last year in October when I got current in the F/A-18 and experience the electromagnetic catapults I watched being built when I was the XO of the ship. They had not launched a plane when we took her to sea for the first time for trials during my XO tour. I have over 2,000 hours in the F/A-18 and am honored to still fly off the ship I command,” said Campagna.

Of course, Campagna still roots for Army and has had some interesting shenanigans around Army-Navy week that he is sure will continue in his position: “My most memorable game since coming into the Navy was when the XO on CARL VINSON had us cuffed before the 2001 game and had Mark and I brought to his office on suspicion of being Army spies. After singing some fight songs, we found out we only escaped watching the game in the brig because there was someone actually in the brig on bread and water and the JAG said ‘no.’ My call sign is ‘Pooh’ because my first squadron was almost all USNA grads, and I had several call signs since they were insistent on a call sign that had to do with Poo—I only got the ‘h’ because my wife is awesome, and they liked her much more than me,” said Campagna.

In the Navy, aircraft carriers are all commanded by Naval Aviators, both pilots and flight officers with significant carrier experience. Once you command a squadron at the O5 level, akin to battalion command in the Army, you can be screened for air wing commander or the Aviation Nuclear Program, and after requesting it, Campagna was selected for the latter. Campagna was always told in the Army that you should try and command, which is the pinnacle of Navy commands.

“I am fortunate to have had great mentors, both officer and enlisted, along the way, which enabled this path. I didn't know if I would make it through the screening. We always joke that your GPA isn't on your diploma, but I had to answer a lot of questions about my calculus grades at Naval Reactors during my interview and am glad they let me into the program despite some average performance. Once selected, we go through the same nuclear training as all the other officers in the Navy serving on carriers and submarines, with six months of academics and four months of shift work running a nuclear plant and becoming qualified before a final course at Naval Reactors before our executive officer tour. It is a challenge going through a graduate level course in mechanical and nuclear engineering 20 years after West Point, but an opportunity I am grateful to have had,” said Campagna.

“I wouldn't be able to do this without an amazing wife at home, Jennifer, who I met while I was in flight school at Fort Rucker. She is a BAMA grad who never dreamed she would have moved from Alabama to California, Nevada, Texas, Florida (three times), Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, where we have been in Virginia Beach since my daughter started school, and she is about to graduate from high school.”