As if maneuvering in a dogfight, it only took an instant for Maj. “Dojo” Olson to get behind the champagne showering shenanigans of his support crew, grab the frothing magnum from their grip, and turn the fight around. To the delight of air show fans at the team’s last 2019 performance at Nellis AFB two weeks ago, Dojo strafed his crew with celebratory bubbly in a soaking counter-attack. It was his final flight as F-35A Lightning II Demo Team Pilot. But in his last interview with TheAviationist.com last week in Nevada, Maj. “Dojo” Olson told us, whether it’s with champagne bottles or cannon shells, the F-35 is about much more than a dogfight.
“People are just starting to understand what the program is all about, and we’re happy to have been a small part of that”, Maj. Olson told TheAviationist.com at Nellis AFB.
This last, joyful demonstration for Maj. Andrew “Dojo” Olson at the 2019 Aviation Nation air show outside Las Vegas was symbolic of the entire season for the world’s first-ever dedicated F-35 Joint Strike Fighter demonstration team. In celebration of his last demo, before he breaking into the pattern after his flight demonstration and Heritage Flight at Nellis AFB, Dojo executed what was perhaps the most spirited rendition of the aerobatic maneuver that bears his name, the now-famous “Dojo Drift”. Maj. Olson’s F-35A hurtled in low out of the Nevada desert over Nellis, hit show center, rolled on its side and slid sideways an impossible distance before thrust trumped gravity and he stood the aircraft on its tail to climb out for entry to his base leg for his final landing as F-35 Demo Team commander.
A strong argument can be made that this first-year demo team helped turn the anti-F-35 media around. During their year-long, 19-show tour the team effectively crowd-sourced fans for the entire F-35 program. Along with the combat mission successes of the F-35 this year by the Israelis, the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Air Force, the F-35 Demo Team helped change the way people think of the entire Joint Strike Fighter program.
And while the F-35 demo team racked up “Likes” on social media, the broader F-35 program was racking up kills with two user-nations across three services in real-world combat. Those engagements against insurgent targets were decidedly one-sided, a Marine F-35B combat pilot told TheAviationist.com at MCAS Miramar, “That’s exactly what we’re looking for. We don’t want a fair fight. We want the advantage to be so far in our favor that adversaries will never pick a fight with us, because they know they will lose.”
Just like the real insurgent hotspots where the F-35 fought in 2019, the Air Force’s new F-35A Lightning II Demo Team faced a significant adversary who seldom fought fair; the popular media. They also waged an asymmetrical public relations campaign against frequently misinformed social media. While it would be inaccurate to credit the team exclusively with the gains the F-35 program has made in public opinion during the last year, it would be equally wrong to deny that the F-35 Demo Team did make a huge positive impact on public opinion about the controversial Joint Strike Fighter program.
In their first year, the F-35A Lightning II Demo Team practiced a key strategy of modern marketing in the evolving media space; they took their pitch to key influencers. By leveraging opinions of aviation photographers, military bloggers and specialty news outlets, the team won fans for the F-35 program one handshake, one photo op, one selfie, one interview, one patch sale, one autograph, one air show at a time. At the end of their first year, the results are impressive.
At the beginning of the air show season in 2019, the F-35 Demo Team had 10,200 followers on Instagram. By June 3, 2019, after their first few public appearances, the team had wracked up an impressive 54,400 Instagram followers. But today, the F-35A Lightning II Demo Team’s official Instagram page has 107,000 followers. By contrast, the Air Force’s decade-old F-22 Demo Team, with 112,000 followers on Instagram, took 12 years to accumulate those social media numbers. If you do the math on how much it cost the Air Force to earn 112,000 Instagram followers for the F-22 Demo Team over 12 years and compare that to what it cost to operate the F-35 Demo Team for only one year while earning a nearly equal 107,000 followers, The F-35 Demo Team looks like a pretty good marketing value for the Air Force.
While their aerobatic flight demo was impressive, the F-35 Demo Team really won over fans on the ground at air shows. From their little Easy-Up tent where fans swarmed to buy F-35 swag, to the airshow fence line where “Dojo”, still clad in his G-suit and looking like he walked off the set of “Top Gun: Maverick” held court with fans and posed for selfies, and with appearances across every channel of social media, the team seemed to hit every opportunity to excite fans, make new ones and influence the F-35 brand story.
As Maj. Andrew “Dojo” Olson leaves the F-35 Demo Team for a coveted F-35 Instructor assignment at Luke AFB, the challenge for the new team is to maintain the momentum and continue the “brand story” of Dojo’s first year Madison Avenue-worthy F-35 posse of super-brand ambassadors.
The team has already released images of their new look 2020 demo season insignia, and Maj. Olson told us he will announce the 2020 demo team commander and lead demo pilot in the upcoming weeks. And while we don’t know who that new F-35 demo team pilot will be for now, we know one thing for sure: “Dojo” and his crew will be a hard act to follow.
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