Air Force's first female Viper pilot asked to leave job after just two weeks

Air Force's first female Viper pilot asked to leave job after just two weeks

The first female pilot to lead the F-16 Viper team has been asked to leave the demonstration team just two weeks after her role was announced.

Captain Zoe Kotnik was commander of the F-16 Viper Demo Team, which performs precision aerial manoeuvres to show the F-16's capabilities at air shows. As well as being the first woman to head the Viper team, Kotnik was the first female single-ship tactical demonstration pilot in the Air Force.

Kotnik graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2011, earned her wings in 2013, and has had more than 1,000 flying hours in military aircraft since. She was deployed to South Korea between 2015 and 2016, and has flown air defence missions as part of Operation Noble Eagle.

Her hiring as team leader was announced on January 29, in a tweet which nodded to the advertising campaign for the upcoming Captain Marvel, which follows a female Air Force fighter pilot who becomes a superhero.

However, less than a month later, it was announced that 20th Fighter Wing commander Colonel Derek O'Malley relieved her of her command due to a "loss of confidence in her ability to lead and command.”

“The Viper demonstration team is working to minimize impacts on scheduled performances and looks forward to inspiring crowds around the country during the upcoming season as soon as a new commander is selected,” Colonel Allen Herritage, director of public affairs at ACC, said.

In a subsequent statement on the Facebook page for the Shaw Air Force base, O’Malley alluded to “mistakes” by Kotnik, but hoped that she will continue to serve in the Air Force:

“We have thousands of airmen across our Air Force serving our country, and not one of them is perfect. As good people, like Capt. Kotnik, make mistakes, I want them to have the opportunity to learn from them without being under public scrutiny and to continue to be a part of this great service. They’ll be better for the experience, and in turn, we’ll be better as an Air Force.

“In these types of situations, I never forget that we’re dealing with real human beings, that I care deeply about, and that we are charged to take care of. This will be a difficult time for Capt. Kotnik, but she’s surrounded by wingmen that will help her every step of the way.”

There was no further comment given on what exactly led to Kotnik’s removal, with O'Malley citing privacy concerns. Kotnik herself refused to comment when the Air Force Times reached out for clarification on her side of events.

Spokesperson for the wing Alannah Staver said that the pilot is no longer performing with the team, yet “will continue to serve in a non-supervisory role in the 20th Fighter Wing."

Kotnik’s first Viper shows were scheduled for March 30 and 31 at the Naval Air Station Key West, though it appears these shows will no longer feature her as a team leader.