Capt. Zoe Kotnik, the first female pilot to head the F-16 Viper demonstration team, was relieved of command Monday.
“Col. Derek O’Malley, 20th Fighter Wing commander, relieved Capt. Zoe Kotnik from command Feb. 11 due to a loss of confidence in her ability to lead and command the Air Combat Command F-16 Viper demonstration team,” said Col. Allen Herritage, director of public affairs at ACC, in a statement. “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.”
Herritage would not comment further on what led to Kotnik’s removal, citing privacy concerns.
The 20th, which is located at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, said in an email to Air Force Times that Kotnik declined to comment. Capt. Alannah Staver, a spokeswoman for the wing, said that Kotnik is no longer performing with the team, but “will continue to serve in a non-supervisory role in the 20th Fighter Wing."
In a statement on Shaw’s Facebook page, O’Malley alluded to “mistakes” on Kotnik’s part, but expressed hope 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,” O’Malley said. “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,” O’Malley continued. “This will be a difficult time for Capt. Kotnik, but she’s surrounded by wingmen that will help her every step of the way.”
Kotnik, an F-16C pilot whose call sign is “SiS,” was certified as the Viper team leader by ACC commander Gen. Mike Holmes on Jan. 29. She graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2011, earned her wings in 2013, and has more than 1,000 flying hours in military aircraft. She deployed to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea for a year, from February 2015 to February 2016. She also has flown air defense missions in support of Operation Noble Eagle.
The Viper team is a single-ship demonstration team that performs precision aerial maneuvers to show the F-16′s capabilities at air shows and other events such as the Super Bowl, as well as flying in Air Force Heritage Flight formations. In addition to being the first woman to head the Viper team, Kotnik is also the first female single-ship tactical demonstration pilot in the Air Force.
Kotnik’s selection garnered a great deal of press and social media attention. The Viper team posted a tweet last month announcing her selection that nodded to the advertising campaign for the Marvel Studios movie “Captain Marvel,” which depicts a superhero who starts out as a female Air Force fighter pilot.
Kotnik’s first show as part of the Viper team’s 2019 schedule was to be at an air show at Naval Air Station Key West in Florida, on March 30 and 31, according to ACC’s website.
O’Malley said that Maj. John “Rain” Waters, who was last season’s Viper demo pilot, has resumed command of the team.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.