Meet Andrew Olson: F-35 Demonstration Pilot
For years, a full F-35 demonstration has been on every air show fan’s bucket list, and in 2019, that wish comes true! With Captain Andrew “Dojo” Olson behind the controls, fans will get their first look at the many capabilities of the F-35 Lightning II this season, rather than just a few Heritage Flight Passes that have been standard over the last couple of years. Captain Olson is a native of Leesburg, Virginia, and has been in the United States Air Force for nearly nine years. He has more than 2,000 hours in several different aircraft, including the T-6A, T-38C, F-15E, and the F-35A. As the first ever F-35 Lightning II Demonstration Pilot, Captain Andrew Olson, along with the help of other F-35A instructor and test pilots, was tasked with coming up with the demonstration profile that will be flown this season. He talks about that process along with a variety of other topics in our interview below:
1. Callsign, and how’d you get it?
The tradition is that you have to buy me a beer to hear about it. In the meantime, hint, it doesn’t have to do with karate and, like most call signs, it’s about a funny flying mistake I made as a Lieutenant.
2. First of all, it’s pretty safe to say a full F-35 demonstration has been at the top of every aviation fan’s wish list for years. What was it like when you found out you’d be the demonstration pilot for the first ever F-35 Demonstration Team?
It was an unreal, fist pumping down the hall way, kind of deal; it still doesn’t seem real. I’m appreciative every day for this incredible opportunity. I used to read about guys like Max Moga (first Raptor Demo Pilot) and think, “That’s so cool! I’d be happy if I just get to fly in the Air Force, period. Any jet would do”. So to have made it to this point is surreal, lucky, and totally unexpected. I really try to cherish it every single day.
3. What has the process been like having to come up with a completely new demonstration from scratch? What all goes into deciding what maneuvers will be included, parameters, etc.?
Two people that deserve credit right off the bat are Maj Aaron “Gambit” Stevens, fellow F-35A Instructor Pilot and Billie Flynn, Lockheed Martin Test/Demo Pilot extraordinaire. Both helped immensely in the development of this profile. It started with Gambit and I sitting down with a blank slate and deciding how to best showcase this incredible jet. This involved pouring over routines from demos all over the world but also banking on our experience of last airshow season and understanding what makes the F-35 look good. What are its strengths, what angles look best to the crowd, what maneuvers set it apart, etc? We put together a draft and took a hack at writing the way the maneuvers are flown and at what altitudes and airspeeds. These parameters were then carefully vetted in the simulator to ensure that they’re safe and repeatable under all conditions; certain maneuvers didn’t work, others were added along the way, and in the end we had our routine. Finally, we got to the fun part where we’ve now flown and perfected the demo over more than 30 training sorties.
4. Is the demonstration the most fun flying you’ve been able to do in the F-35? What makes it different from traditional combat flying?
It’s certainly fun flying. You can’t beat cruising over your home base, inverted, at 300 feet. It’s a truly visceral, physical experience that’s unlike any flying I’ve ever done. It’s important to point out that the coolest parts of the F-35 will never be on display at an airshow. Traditional combat flying is where the F-35 REALLY excels and what sets it apart. Taking out a simulated enemy sometimes happens at simple 1G straight and level flight. Regardless of the sometimes benign maneuvering, seeing the jet do its thing and crush opponents easily without being seen is truly eye watering.
5. What was it like stepping into the F-35 for the first time? How did that first flight go?
I remember thinking: am I really about to go fly a stealth fighter jet? It was a dreamlike realization. It’s interesting to note that every other “dollar ride” aka first sortie I’ve had in my career was with someone in the backseat. In this jet, you’re all alone from the get go. With that being said, there was total confidence going into that F-35 dollar ride. The simulators perfectly mimic the real thing so once I was strapped into the jet, it felt like I had already done this a hundred times because I had. The jet is super easy to fly and the first sortie was a non-event.
6. What makes the F-35 ideal for a demonstration, and how does the F-35 Demo differ from other ACC demos air show fans will see this year?
The F-35 is a beast of an airplane. It’s loud, it’s fast, and it’s agile. People were blown away from just the few simple passes we’d do in years’ past and my response was always, “believe me, you haven’t seen anything yet”. The new F-35 Demo perfectly combines all the best attributes of other demo teams and brings it together in one epic show. It’s fast and agile like the Viper, it does one of a kind maneuvers like the Raptor, and it has the impressive slow speed handling of the Hornet all with unmatched power. The motor in the F-35 is the biggest ever put into a fighter and when the afterburner is lit you know you’re off to the races.
7. In addition to coming up with the demo on paper, how much flying is involved to make sure you’re ready to go for the 2019 season, and what all is required to get certified for the demonstration?
There’s a syllabus just like any other learning process in the Air Force. We’ll have more than 30 training sorties and countless simulators under our belt before we ever do a public demonstration. Each practice and performance is graded by hand by watching cockpit video recording. We record each maneuver’s parameters to the foot and to the knot. No stone is left unturned. We watch for and want to correct every error, no matter how small. When you’re traveling at 1,000 feet per second, grading yourself to the foot/knot is a very tight tolerance but that’s how sharp and crisp we want the show to look. Precision is the mark of every Air Force professional.
8. We know it’s still somewhat early, but do you have a favorite maneuver so far or a part of the demo that you look forward to the most?
I love hanging upside down by the straps during -1G, inverted flight which happens during a couple of the maneuvers. Also, the “pedal turn” where we perform a fully controlled flat spin is always a surreal maneuver to execute. In short, I love them all!
9. Do you have a show site or event that you are looking forward to the most this season?
We have an absolutely incredible season lined up! We’re truly looking forward to every single show on the schedule for a variety of reasons. I can’t narrow it down to just one.
10. What are you most excited about for the 2019 season? The flying, people’s reaction of the new demo, fan interaction, etc.?
For me, it’s always about the fan interaction. That’s why we do this. The flying and the show is just a conduit to accomplish the connection we want to forge with the American public. Inspiring current and especially future generations to live their best life is what it’s all about.
11. What inspired you to become a pilot, and furthermore, what inspired you to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot?
Top Gun was the early inspiration, albeit a movie about a Navy pilot. I chose the Air Force over the Navy because I wanted to fly in the branch of the military that considers flying (in various arenas) to be its primary mission.
12. What advice do you have for young men and women who are considering careers in aviation, whether it be civilian or military?
There has never been a better time to pursue this profession. The civilian and military world alike cannot get enough pilots and the demand will likely continue for more than a decade. So I would tell them that if you’ve ever been interested in or dreamed of flying for a career, go for it! Be persistent, find a mentor, and don’t listen to the naysayers because you will encounter obstacles. Just stay focused on your goal and you’ll get there.
We’d like to thank Captain Andrew Olson and the F-35 Demonstration Team for their time as they continue to prepare for their debut season! Go checkout their 2019 schedule and find out when they’ll be near you, because this is a demonstration you’re not going to want to miss! Stay tuned for more exclusive content as we near the 2019 season!