Meet Zoe Kotnik: F-16 Viper Demo Pilot
Over the last two years, the F-16 Viper Demo Team has soared to new heights with the help of Major John “Rain” Waters. Major Waters revolutionized the air show industry, specifically for ACC demo teams, with his social media presence and fan interaction. Now, he hands the reigns over to someone who will continue to push boundaries and revolutionize the demo, and she already has in one way. Captain Zoe “SiS” Kotnik is a native of Poynette, Wisconsin, and has been in the United States Air Force for nearly 8 years. She has accumulated roughly 1100 flights hours in three aircraft, including the T-6, the T-38, and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Now, she adds another accomplishment to her list: first female Air Combat Command single-ship demonstration pilot. We had the opportunity to speak with Zoe recently as she prepares to bring the noise to an air show near you:
1. Callsign, and how’d you get it?
-SiS – (Sister in Squadron) Throughout pilot training and in my Combat Air Force squadrons, I’ve generally been the only female fighter pilot in those squadrons, or in some cases the only one on base, so I’m like the “little sister.”
2. First of all, congratulations on your new role as pilot for the F-16 Viper Demo Team! What was it like when you received the news that you had been selected as the new demo pilot?
-Thank you! I was actually in my squadron preparing a tactical briefing for a flying upgrade I had the next day. I was focused on my computer when I heard the door of my office close. I turned around and saw my Operations Group Commander and Wing Commander standing there. I jumped to my feet, thinking, “this is never a good sign,” but it was seconds later that they both shook my hand and congratulated me for being selected as the next ACC F-16 Viper Demonstration Commander and Pilot! It took some time after that for it to actually sink in and realize this dream was becoming a reality.
3. You have some pretty big shoes to fill when it comes to Major John “Rain” Waters! What’s it been like working with “Rain” and how has he helped you make the transition to the demo?
-Rain has set the bar for Viper Demo at a new high. He flew a precise, high energy demo that people will not forget. But he also established himself as a polished ambassador of the ACC and USAF. This past summer I was fortunate to be released by my CAF squadron to start shadowing the Demo Team while they were on the road. I got to observe Rain at 9 different airshows and really see him in his element. I was continuously impressed with how professional yet personable his act was, both in and out of the jet. It was very evident that he was loved and respected not only by the crowd, but the performers and the airshows themselves. Some of my best training with Rain was on the road, watching his interactions and witnessing the effect Viper Demo had on people of all ages. As the commander, Rain had a humble and approachable leadership style that naturally drew in new fans and brought old fans closer. His team had a personal connection with the public, and it was obvious through the outpouring of support they showed for Viper Demo. There is so much I’ve learned from Rain that I will take forward as his successor, but I am really looking forward to continuing to develop the team’s connection with the communities we visit and inspiring their younger generations.
4. When did you decide that you wanted to be a pilot, and what inspired you to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot?
-My grandfather operated an airport in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He had six daughters, including my mom, that he wanted to teach to fly. My mom started flying with him at an early age and continued to pursue her PPL in her young adult life. My mom’s love of aviation never wavered, and she made sure to introduce my siblings and me to the true spirit of aviation. Before I was a year old, I had gone to my first EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 18 years later, I missed my first AirVenture as I was due at Basic Cadet Training at the United States Air Force Academy because I was determined to be an officer in the USAF and become a fighter pilot. Leading up to that, I was fortunate to spend years of my childhood watching the greats, like my uncle Charlie Hillard and his teammates, Jimmy Franklin, Sean D. Tucker, Patty Wagstaff, and Michael Goulian. But the memory I will never forget, which has led me to where I am today, was watching a white NASA T-38 pull up to show center and shut down at Oshkosh when I was about 9 years old. The pilot popped the canopy and took off their helmet. It was at that moment that I realized she was a woman. And not just any woman—she was a pilot, a pilot flying a jet, a jet with afterburners. It was at that moment that I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I was going to be a fighter pilot.
5. What advice do you have to young girls who want to become a pilot and possibly start a career in aviation, whether it be civilian or military?
-I don’t want to give advice just to little girls. I want to give advice to little girls AND little boys, because the advice doesn’t change. My advice is this: You can do it! Find something you are passionate about. If that passion is aviation, or the military, or military aviation then go for it. It’s going to take hard work but that’s what you want! Stick with it. Don’t be afraid to fail. If you don’t ever allow yourself to experience failure, then you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. Take those failures and turn them into a lesson learned to apply to your next success. My journey to becoming a fighter pilot is full of little failures and little successes. For me, it was about taking all of those experiences and using them as my stepping stones to keep pressing forward and eventually get to where I wanted to be. Lastly, and most importantly, don’t ever let anyone tell you, “you can’t.” Because you can—and now’s the time to show them.
6. What’s it like flying the F-16, and what makes it ideal for the demo?
-Flying the Viper literally never gets old. Plugging it into afterburner on takeoff and getting pressed back into my seat still makes me giggle inside. It’s the world’s craziest rollercoaster and I get to tell it what to do. You kiddin’ me?! Aside from its superior aesthetics and streamlined shape, the Viper is ideal as a demonstration aircraft because of its sheer power and maneuverability, which allows us to showcase its strengths as a premiere multi-role fighter. It’s also loud, fast, and can turn on a dime which gives us the ability to put on a high energy show with more time in front of the crowd.
7. How is the training going so far, and what all goes into becoming certified as the demonstration pilot?
-Training was eye-opening! The first time I flew in Rain’s backseat, I was shocked at how intense and violent it was. It is 16 straight minutes of maximizing the performance of the aircraft and pulling a lot of Gs. I went home that night and crashed hard! I continued to fly a lot throughout December and January, stepping down from 5,000’ to 1,000’, then 500’ and finally down to 300’. I had four certifications to complete with my leadership and actually just accomplished my last one at Langley AFB for the Commander of the ACC, on Tuesday!
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?
-My favorite maneuver is the Falcon Turn into the Shark’s Tooth. The combination of maneuvers really showcases the Viper’s ability to rapidly change direction with an extremely small turn radius, and still have the energy to go directly into the vertical. It makes you want to say, “WOW!”
9. Do you have a show site or event that you are looking forward to the most this season?
-I’m looking forward to all 20 airshows we have on the schedule this year, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m most excited about Oshkosh. It’s my home show and the airshow that I literally grew up at. I also have tremendous respect for what a massive, yet safe and entertaining airshow they put on every single year, supported by an all-volunteer team!
10. What are you most excited about as you embark on your new adventure as the F-16 Viper Demo Pilot? The flying, fan interaction, etc.
-I’m excited to get back to the community that influenced me so profoundly when I was a little girl. I will never forget the moment I saw that NASA pilot pull off her helmet. It was the single moment that has defined my life as I know it. I will be forever grateful for the positive impact the airshow culture had (and still has) on me and the inspiration it ignited in me. My goal for the next two years is to be a positive influence on the younger generations that are looking for their source of inspiration, and to be just one example of what they too are capable of.
11. You’re not the only girl flying an F-16 on the air show circuit this year. Have you had a chance to speak to Captain Michelle Curran, Thunderbird 6, yet?
-I got to meet Michelle at ICAS this past December! I am so excited to see this kind of female representation on the airshow circuit. She is a strong, confident, and talented woman and fighter pilot. As a fellow female fighter pilot, I am proud to have Michelle representing who we are and what we do. I’m looking forward to collaborating with her these next two years and to see her inspire the masses.
12. If you got to fly any plane other than the F-16, what would it be and why?
-When it comes to current fighter aircraft, the Viper is my baby. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But if I ever have the opportunity, I want to learn to fly the P-51 Mustang. It’s like an American muscle car that flies, and has an incredible history to back it up.
We’d like to thank Captain Zoe “SiS” Kotnik for taking the time to speak with us, and we know she can’t wait to speak with all of you at a show this season! If you want to keep up with Zoe and the F-16 Viper Demo Team, you can follow her on Instagram at @thezoekotnik and the F-16 Viper Demo Team @viperdemoteam. Stay tuned for more exclusive content as we get closer to the 2019 air show season!