USAF F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team

Interview & Photography: Ryan Kelly, Nicholas Pascarella, Ryan Tykosh, James Woodard

[Editor's note:] Full Disc Aviation spent three days hanging around MCAS Beaufort before their airshow, and on Friday, we got to watch Major Paul "Loco" Lopez shred the sky over the base in partly cloudy conditions from a nearby field. RyTy, James, Ryguy and I were far enough out that it didn't make sense to take photos unless Loco was repositioning directly over us (which he did a few times), so, for a few rare minutes as aviation photographers, we simply became observers.

This might not sound like much, but watching a full routine not glued to our viewfinders and rattling off hundreds of shots at a time was a breath of fresh air, and we were able to fully appreciate things that cannot be communicated through photos. Loco does truly breathtaking things with the Raptor. He'll backflip seemingly in the same spot in the sky. He'll float the jet down through multiple rotations, looking like a slow motion flat spin. And naturally, as he repositioned one of the last times, he squared us up on the field and pulled a hard turn over us. Of course, needless to say, this is only a fraction of the jet's capabilities.

Ryan Kelly worked with 2nd Lt. Sam Eckholm of the F-22 Demo Team, and together they were able to wrangle the Raptor road warriors into a quiet room to meet with Full Disc Aviation after the practice show. Sam briefed his team that we were not after the typical responses, and we were looking forward to having some candid conversations. What we didn't expect was how real it got, how genuine the team is, and how incredible each of their individual stories are.

It's a poignant reminder that there are real men and women underneath these uniforms, with real stories and real experiences. I hope that sharing some of them might inspire, motivate, or comfort others with similar stories, goals or obstacles. With that said, I'll leave the rest of the speaking to the guys. It is our absolute pleasure to introduce you to the 2019 USAF F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team. [-np]

*edited for content and clarity


FDA: If you wouldn't mind telling us who you are, a little about yourself, what you do…
SrA Cody Gose: I'm Senior Airman Cody Gose. I am a five-level avionics specialist. Basically, my job is to fix anything and everything electronic that is on that jet...outside of work I'm very fitness motivated...I live fitness.

What inspired you to join the Air Force?
SrA Gose: I'm from Enid, Oklahoma; kind of a small town. Really, nothing good comes out of there except for Air Force pilots. [laughter] My dad was prior Army, retired out of the army. I worked as a diesel mechanic...I was supposed to be a loadmaster initially, but...that job closed out. I went open electrical which basically sets you in that career field...anything that the Air Force needs is what you get slotted for. They gave me a list of aircraft and this is what I chose: F-22.

F22DemoTeam_FullDiscAviation_JamesWoodard-April 27, 2019-23.jpg

Would you consider yourself a gearhead?
SrA Gose: Definitely. Being a diesel mechanic beforehand, I think I got the upper hand on most people [applying for similar positions]. I'm a really hands-on person.

You like tinkering?
SrA Gose: Yeah. I like that...cars, motorcycles, aircraft, pretty much anything that has an engine is cool. I'll work on it.

[Editor's note: We ended up asking more gearhead questions and we had a short conversation about the work he's done on his 370Z...needless to say, SrA Gose enjoys a dose of speed at work and afterwards…]

SSgt Davila, mind telling us a little about yourself?
SSgt Isreal Davila: I'm Staff Sergeant Israel Davila. I'm from the Bronx, New York and I'm a Crew Chief seven-level for the F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team. I'm in charge of making sure that the aircraft is inspection ready; any issues that the aircraft has itself, we resolve them and we coordinate the maintenance and servicing for the aircraft, so that Loco can have a jet ready to rock on show days or practice days. I love my job. I've been in the Air Force 8 years. I lived in the Bronx, New York until I was 13, moved up towards Syracuse, but I actually joined out of Allentown, Pennsylvania...when I went to the military recruiting offices, the Air Force was the first on the left. I had an idea that I might want to join the Air Force over everything else because I wanted to work in the aviation career field, but things might have been a little different if that place was situated a different way.

Where was your first assignment?
SSgt Davila: [My first assignment was] to Anchorage, Alaska at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and it was crazy because...being a city guy, I really thought that I was going to see igloos all around...it was not going to be civilized at all. And I was kind of scared to go there: wasn't even on my dream sheet...my dream sheet was Langley, because it was the closest to home for the Raptor, and then Vegas, then Tyndall, but Alaska was not on there at all, and that was my assignment.

How was it?
SSgt Davila: It was the best three years that I've had in the Air Force. It's just the different atmosphere, that's all. The work was awesome, off-duty activities were awesome...I'm not much of an outdoorsman, but I learned how to go snag fishing [laughter] that was pretty dope.

That's awesome. What about aviation? How'd you get into that?
SSgt Davila: I think it was seeing a lot of commercials back in the day about the Air Force; about mechanics...that sticks out the most to me because it's something cool. I wanted to learn a trade. I'm actually a college dropout. I tried college, my dad gave me the ultimatum to either go work or go to school; military was not a part of those choices, just because no one in my family knew anything about the military. So, I took it upon myself, when I dropped out of college, to hit that office up and find out everything for myself. My mom didn't want me to go but I had to decide what was the biggest challenge.

Was it a big challenge making the transition between [the squadron] and the F-22 Demo Team?
SSgt Davila: Oh, yeah, I love challenges and I mentioned this during my interviews that it's easy to be back home and have all that supervision there to guide you through the day and what what needs to be done, but I feel like as a Crew Chief seven-level, being on the road with two aircraft, you're like a Maintenance Superintendent. It's only two jets, but it's definitely challenging sometimes, and I love a challenge.

Sweet...what about you, Sergeant Aronson?
TSgt Joey Aronson: I am Tech Sergeant Joey Aronson. I was born in Florida, but I say I'm from Richmond [VA] because I've lived there since I was old enough to actually enjoy things other than  playing in a walker. I actually am in the Virginia Air National Guard full time and I joined that in 2008. Chose that path instead of active duty Air Force just because at the time I was an HVAC technician. I had a really good job, especially because I started that while still in high school, and I already kind of had a good path going, but joining the military was always something that I wanted to do. I've always been a fan of being a part of things that are bigger than me. So, I took the guard path so that I could still get the military experience and still continue the path I was going down. I did my six months of orders and about five months in, they offered me to extend. And I love the job, I loved working on the jet and just it was a more rewarding thing for me. And also, it didn't involve me crawling in underneath tiny crawl spaces or sitting in attics and stuff all day. [laughter] The biggest thing for me was; I've always not really been a sit-behind-the-desk type of person. I've always been active in everything. I'd started doing HVAC when I was 15 years old, and it was just one of those things where I never want to sit behind a desk... and the Raptor's awesome. I'm a seventh-level Avionics Technician on the Raptor. That's been cool just with my electrical background. It was...I don't want to say easy, because being a spec on this jet is far from easy, [but] the nature of this aircraft is different. In older aircraft, the avionics is shredded out. You have your E&E and your radar and your avionics and your comms…[this is] everyone smashed into one. It's been super rewarding, I don't regret it for a second. It's gotten me a lot of really awesome opportunities and I've gotten to see a lot of cool things and meet a lot of cool people.

Image Credit - 2 Lt. Sam Eckholm

Image Credit - 2 Lt. Sam Eckholm

What's been your favorite thing so far?
TSgt Aronson: I've got a ton of them...definitely getting selected for the Raptor Demo Team has been cool and I'm not just saying that because we're here doing an interview. At Langley, we're TFI, which is Total Force Integration, but the Guard, just the nature of the difference of it, it's been harder for there to be a lot of Guard members on the team. When I got into Langly and I saw the cool black uniforms, we'd see the demo practices and I was thinking, man, that's what I want to do. The integration got better and we became more of a cohesive unit to where, if you go to Langley now, you won't tell who's Guard or who's active duty, and I was afforded the opportunity to apply and got to do it and it was pretty cool. Some of the deployments are pretty awesome too.

Would you say being part of the F-22 Demo Team has taught you how to work as a team better since it's more of a small group of people?  
TSgt Aronson: Definitely. We work as a team and that's one of the great things about the demo team itself, is that everyone on our team is comfortable being uncomfortable, and that's a cool thing that we all bring together. It's not [one specific person's job], we're all going to get together, we're going to figure out the problem as a team and we're going to tackle it as quickly and safely as possible so that Loco can show off what the Raptor can do.

Absolutely...Airman Bailey, would you mind telling us a little about yourself?
SrA Bailey: I'm Senior Airman Aaron Bailey. I was born in Long Island, New York just before I moved to North Carolina, right outside the Camp Lejeune Base. I was a military brat. My dad was a Marine. I don't even remember New York; I haven't been there since I was born. Growing up, when [I was] trying to figure out whated to do in life, military was always going to be one of those things that I could do since I was always around it. When I was growing up, I didn't want to take that route...I wanted to do something different. So, I decided to go to college. I did two years; I couldn't pay for it no more. I had to drop out. My parents gave me the ultimatum as well… I wanted to be on my own again, actually make money and start a career. So, me and my dad talked about it and [I told him I'm going to] join the military...seeing my brothers graduation...into the Air Force, that was my first indication that I wanted to be a part of this. It was just a very nice ceremony; I wanted to wear this uniform as well. I joined, I went mechanically open. Initially, I wanted to be a drone operator at that time. I think it was for officers only, so [I] couldn't do that job...but I just took open mechanic...I didn't want to be a cop or stuck behind a desk..I wanted to be a part of the actual mission of the Air Force. I got work on tactical aircraft, I went to Wichita, did my training there, and they came up with my orders...on my dream sheet I had Langley, because it was close to home; like four hours away…[and that's what I got]. I know I'm not mechanically proficient at all. [laughter] I have no experience prior to joining as far as being a mechanic. The Air Force taught me a trade and I got really really good at it. This is a great opportunity for me…and for them to choose me be a part of the demo team, the faith they had that I could do the job really well [was inspiring]. My job is being a part of the major and minor inspections of the jet, making sure the jet is ready to go before Loco takes it up; so he can have a safe demo. They're putting their trust in me to put that jet out there at 100%. I really appreciate them for choosing me.

Image Credit - 2 Lt. Sam Eckholm

Image Credit - 2 Lt. Sam Eckholm

Is that something of a personal goal to get the drones job?
SrA Bailey: Yes, I'm coming up on my list. I have two more years left. I do plan on staying in, with me being a military brat. Definitely trying get the ball rolling, trying to get my name out there and do whatever I got to do... get my schooling done and see if I can cross train... definitely wanted to give that a shot.

What about you, Sgt Sanchez?
TSgt Yamil Reyes Sanchez: My name is Yamil Reyes Sanchez. I'm a Technical Sergeant, and on the team, I serve as the Team Chief. I joined the Air Force as an F-16 crew chief. I'm from Yonkers, New York. I say that because I was born in Puerto Rico, but I grew up in Yonkers. [I went] back when I was an adolescent, so, elementary school and high school in New York, middle school in Puerto Rico, to kind of give you an idea what years I was over there. I didn't do good in high school. Hung out with the wrong crowd. Long story short, I got kicked out. Wasted a couple of years of my life hanging out with the wrong people. Got kicked out of my house. Went to my brother and my brother kicked me out. I was up to no good. Ultimately, I decided to clean my life up and I went to a place called Job Corps when I was about 21 years old. It's a federally funded program for kids who are on their last opportunity before they go to jail. So, I got my GED high school equivalency, went to college for two years, got an associate degree and tried looking for work; couldn't find work..joining the military was just a last minute decision...just thought I should join the military, didn't really give it a whole lot of thought. I knew I just wanted to gain employment, and I don't want to go back home unemployed. I don't want to let my family down, because I know they had a lot of hope and they had a lot invested in me.

Image Credit - 2 Lt. Sam Eckholm

Image Credit - 2 Lt. Sam Eckholm

What did you want to do?
TSgt Sanchez: In the Air Force initially, I wanted to be an electrician. I did very well on [the tests]...I had the job available to me. The problem is that I had to wait eight months before I can get the job, and I did not want to stay at home one more day. I was surrounded by a lot of negativity, so I thought, what job can I take to just leave home now? So, [they told me when I joined] the Air Force as an F-16 Crew Chief that Luke Air Force Base, Arizona was my first duty station. I went to Korea twice, spent a total of six years on the F-16. After my second trip in Korea, I wanted to move to Florida. I wanted to be closer to my mom because she moved down from New York to Florida to be with my eldest brother because my oldest brother has a lot of kids. He has six girls and my mother followed him down to Florida to help him take care of his kids. I wanted to get stationed in Florida so I could be close to my mother and at least have a chance to go visit her. That was my first year on the Raptors. I applied for Florida bases and as my follow on from Osan, they sent me to Tyndall Air Force Base. After getting to Florida...a few months later, my mom had a stroke. She passed away a week later…

[Editor's note: The gravity which TSgt Sanchez was speaking with held the room captive. The silence was heavy, and at this point, I'm not afraid to admit I was holding back emotions. He was a natural storyteller and we were fully invested. The relationships we have with loved ones range the entire spectrum, but the collective experience of our relationships shape our entire worldview...and the circumstances he was describing tore me apart. He continued…]

TSgt Sanchez: ...I was there for maybe two months and that happened. So I [thought] there's no point in me being here anymore...I don't want to be here. I went and spoke to my career advisor and [asked him] "how can I get out of Tyndall?" ...Langley was my top choice...I spoke to my wife, but ended up at Langley. I've been at Langley for the last eight years or so, and I've been on the Raptor for about 10 years now...I've been on the team for a year.

Do you feel your story might inspire the younger generation who may be on a similar course?
TSgt Sanchez: I would hope it does...today, we went to a place called Omni Kids...it's a program very similar to Job Corps where they are trying to rehabilitate these kids that are on a downward spiral... I shared my life story with them. Hopefully I resonated with at least one person...and if I did, I would chalk that up as a win.

Doing good work…what are your other duties?
TSgt Sanchez: So, I'm a Crew Chief by trade, but I serve as the Team Chief and my responsibility is... the logistics. I am communicating with the people who are running the shows and coordinating the tools and equipment that the guys are going to need. I'm coordinating transportation, coordinating airfare for the team and coordinating the lodging. I also narrate; also play the music for certain parts of the show...I find myself very fortunate to have Major Lopez; working so closely with him, because he has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge when it comes to managing...I've been just trying to soak it all in. He's had a lot of good things to teach me, and I feel like I've been growing by leaps and bounds.

Awesome! What about off time?
Tsgt Sanchez:. On my off time, I do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I have my blue belt... been doing it for three years.

What's been your favorite moment with the team?
TSgt Sanchez: My favorite moment with the team is, believe it or not, it's this. [It's] the community outreach, going to the schools, talking to the kids, going to hospitals. I feel like we make such an impact on the kids. I wish I had that when I was in school. I didn't have that. I don't have military guys come and talk to me about the cool jobs and the cool opportunities there that are out there...Because had I not joined the military, I'd still be at home. I still probably be a lot worse, in all honesty, a lot worse...because I've gone back to visit my friends there. If they're not doing the same things that they were doing before I left, they're doing a lot worse. I don't have the money to do the kind of things that I've been able to do in the Air Force...visit the countries I've had I've had the opportunity to visit, meet people from different walks of life, different parts of the world, it's been such a cool experience. I don't have to pay for any of it. I just have to do my job. It's cool.

Master Sergeant, what's your name and your specialty? Tell us about yourself!
Master Sergeant Emmanuel Knowlton: I'm Master Sergeant Emmanuel Knowlton from Arkansas; been in the Air Force now for about 16 years. I'm a Crew Chief by trade. I am the Superintendent of the team, the right-hand man of Major Paul Lopez...essentially my job on the team is merging talents of the whole team. What's unique about this position and also the position of the Commander and the Team Chief [is] we get to pick our team...we went through a matrix to see who we would pick for our team. Everybody who's on our team is there for a reason.

Why did you join?
MSgt Knowlton: Initially, I came just to get away from my parents house. When I turned 18, my mom and dad was like hey, you guys are gonna go to the military or go to college or get out. So, I had to pretty much choose my path. I did great in school, had no issues with grades, had no issue with bad behavior, just didn't really care about school too much. I just wanted to get out and be on my own and just make money, and the Air Force was my choice. My parents did not serve...I just wanted to just get out of their house initially... I said I was gonna do six years and get out of the military...but hey, it's 15 years now, so... it's been fun. As long as I can continue to have fun...I'll keep doing it.

How many applicants did you work through?
MSgt Knowlton: Oh wow. So, this year, I think we went through about 60 applicants, from different positions... it's a two-year position...then you go on to do bigger and better things. Each position holds a seven-level or a five-level, and some positions like the PAO and then the flight equipment specialist, it's just a one-man-deep slot and that's pretty much how we choose our team. We find out things about them before they actually come and interview... we do a little homework, do a little background work, because anybody can bring a paper in front of you and woo you with the paper. I want to know the the good, the bad, the ugly.

What other jets did you work with?
MSgt Knowlton: Initially when I came to the Air Force in 2003, I was slated to work on the F-15... so... this was pretty cool; Major Paul Lopez was actually an F-15 pilot, and I was his Crew Chief back then, so it's pretty cool to come full circle now. We're no longer Crew Chief/young Lieutenant…[we're] Superintendent and aircraft Commander now. The F-15 had its challenges. It was pretty good. It's almost like the difference between the F-15 and F-22 is like an old Corvette versus a Tesla. Because the F-15 was out for so long, some of the stuff that goes wrong with it...you learned from other guys who worked the actual aircraft and [employed] their knowledge. For this jet, we use a computer. You plug the computer up and the computer can push you in the right direction of what's wrong with it. It doesn't specifically tell you to change this or do this, but for the most part, it just brings you from the whole aircraft to a narrow area and then we have great guys on the team [who have] been doing this for a while [that find the specific issue and fix it]. And that's another thing that went into choosing our team members; experience was a big thing because we're on the road operating as a single unit. There is no reach back home on the road. We've had a couple of calls where ...we got this problem, we need aircraft within the next three hours, and all of our guys, every last one of them, has delivered. I'll go to war with these guys any day. Airman Bailey mentioned earlier that he was not mechanically inclined but just off of our office interview and just listening to people around him, they spoke very highly of him. And I even told Major Lopez... I want him. That's my guy. Sam; I saw some of his videos and saw some of these pictures and saw his enthusiasm for want to be on the team. You would think that guy's over-the-top, but that was passion. I told Major Lopez, I don't really have to interview him. I want him on our team.

It's worked out well! What about you, Loco?
Major Paul 'Loco' Lopez: I'm Major Paul Lopez, callsign Loco, 2019 F-22 Demonstration Team Commander and Pilot. I'm in the Air Force because I just love what I do. I love the opportunity that's been bestowed upon me as well as the responsibility and authority that the country entrusts to the Raptor Demonstration Team. Our whole reason for being here is to showcase our brand of airpower, recruit, retain and inspire America's finest personnel to the Air Force, as well as to enhance international community relationships.

What inspired you to join the Air Force?
Maj Lopez: Growing up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, out there is Naval Air Station Oceana...a master jet base where the Navy trains their east coast pilots… Back in the day, Top Gun was a big thing in the 90's, and [I saw] the Tomcats flying around over my house. I would just think it was the best thing...just so majestic and beautiful, seeing fighter jets flying formation. You see it at air shows, you see the jet teams perform... man, it's just a thing of beauty... I wanted to fly and ...be in a jet by yourself...flying formation, because I thought that was just the best thing in the world. My parents saw that passion and they started taking me out to airshows and buying me airplane books. I knew I wanted to be a fighter pilot; I just didn't know how to get there. I heard recently that a dream without goals is just a wish. My parents said write down your goals, so, I wrote down that I wanted to be a fighter pilot...and the rest was blank. [laughter] I wanted to try to figure out how to talk to fighter pilots, so I joined a JROTC in high school and I went to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. They have Army ROTC and Air Force ROTC. So, if you want to be a fighter pilot...the Army's awesome, they got some great helicopters, great capability, but you're not going to be flying fighter jets in the Army. So, that was an easy decision for me...You get your ticket to the big dance by figuring out the path to getting a pilot slot to get to pilot training. [In college, I needed] to pass the full Air Force officer qualifying test, which is like the SAT...it has a pilot portion and a navigator portion. If you want to become a pilot and you don't do well on the test, you have to wait six months to take the test again, and you can only take it twice in your life. A lot's riding on that...that brings me back to another point... success equals opportunity times preparation... they told me how I'm within this window of opportunity, and the decisions I make now with studying for this test and preparing for it can determine my outcome...so I studied like crazy. [I] went out and bought test prep books, and that way, the first time I saw it wouldn't be experiencing it on the test for the first time... I graduated college and went to pilot training...got my wings and I flew the F-15C model for about three and a half years...I've been with the Raptor for about eight years now. I'm coming up on a thousand hours this summer which is a big deal for me... for any fighter pilot. It's not easy to get a thousand hours in a jet. It's just very humbling. And that's a testament to the instructors who have given me the skills to be successful, as well as to my peers, my support system, because without them, I wouldn't be here.

Going from Virginia Beach to Alaska, what was that transition like for you?
Maj Lopez: Before you go to Alaska, you hear a lot of people spreading rumors...it's just like anything: people are gonna give you only their perspective when they may not see the big picture. I'll tell you what, man, Alaska is God's country... it's amazing up there; the last frontier. The mountains are gorgeous. You’ve got glaciers...and you're not the top of the food chain. There are things that eat you in Alaska [laughter] ...you have to carry a firearm for protection…[but] everybody in Alaska is very nice. The culture out there's remarkable. The environment is awesome as well, and turns out, it's not darkness six months out of the year. The sun comes up in the wintertime...it just comes up between 9:30 and 10:00, and then it goes down between 3:30 and 4:00. So, if you go outside for lunch, you're going to see the sun. It takes a little bit getting used to waking up in the dark and going to work in the dark, but you still find a daytime there... Flying night ops [in the] winter time up there is extra challenging. This jet just loves the cold dry air and the performance is remarkable up there, but when you're flying in those type of environmental situations, it all comes down to human factors and life support. So, in the event of a worst case scenario and you had to get out of the airplane now, you have to know how to survive through the night to tell your story if the rescue forces just can't make it to you within a couple hours...which I think is another testament to the arctic survival training you go through up there, because before I did that training, I was [saying standard fighter pilot things like] yeah, I'll survive...I'll trek over a mountain and take out a bear with my bare hands. [laughter] I was humbled when I went through arctic survival training, because I didn't know what I didn't know, and after learning the skill sets to survive if you had to leave an airplane in the arctic...it's just humbling what I didn't know. There's no way I'd survive a couple hours just being out there without that training. So, thanks to those arctic survival class instructors, they're awesome…

What's one of the most important things you learned?
Maj Lopez: One of the most important things I learned through that training is that if you start getting cold, don't stand still, start running in place, start jogging in a circle to get that core temperature back up and start warming up those extremities...you want to stay clean, don't overheat, you want to stay layered, and you want to stay dry.

Was there a big difference between the 15 and the 22 for you?
Maj Lopez: Yep, it's totally different systems. The F-15 is a hydro-mechanical system..the stick is in the center...when you move the stick, you actually [control] cables and pulleys going to the different flight control surfaces...with the Raptor, you're flying computers and the stick is on the side. Whenever you move the stick, move the throttles or step on the pedals, you're saying little inputs to the computer to give you a desired effect.

FDA: Crazy...so [does the stick feel like] that of the F-16?
Maj Lopez: Yes, it's a pressure sensor, and it's interesting because you hear people say that the F-16 stick really doesn't move, but...man, the Air Force is blessing me with some great opportunities...recently, I had the chance to fly in the back of the Thunderbirds with number four in the slot at one of their low show practices at Nellis. I had a chance to fly the recovery...from the back seat. When you're flying in close formation, I really focus on not doing big, aggressive stick movements... really, you're only trying to do big stick movements whenever you're doing one-on-one dogfighting or you're doing aggressive maneuvering by yourself. So, I really didn't notice the stick travel as much, other than what people say, because at that point [I try to fly more surgical], just by my fingertips...

With the demo team, what's been your most memorable moment?
Maj Lopez: [It's] not necessarily the flying, but more so the impact that you have on people with this platform. Because it's not that they come to see any particular member on the demo team. They're coming to see the airplane fly, and we happen to be the representatives for the Air Force that make it happen. It's cool, seeing all the little successes that happen because we have professional airmen, phenomenal airmen, experts in their craft on the team, and by them doing their job, it enables the demo pilot to do their job and carry out the mission of showcasing airpower. I would say from a leadership perspective, it's just cool. You always hear people talk about [how] leaders are there to remove obstacles? I'm constantly asking the team: hey, are there any issues? What are you working on? Are you getting what you need? That way, I can go in and have a friendly conversation with somebody and make things happen for the team because it's all about mission first, people always... but you have to lead people to manage resources and it's just humbling to have the Air Force believe in us this much. They just let us take two Raptors off station...multimillion-dollar airplanes, and do this..I'm extremely proud. And without the team, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. So, I like to say it's more like different parts of the body, you know, we're like Voltron from the Power Rangers or Captain Planet. [laughter] You are only as strong as your weakest link because if somebody's not doing well on the team, it affects the overall operation. We're always looking out for each other. Bringing it back to the whole Air Force, even our world-class chefs who work in the dining facility [have to prepare the food properly or the crew may get sick]...but man, when people are passionate about what they do and they understand the big picture of how nobody's doing this on their own; we're all part of the team, a larger mission... it's amazing what we can accomplish.

Will you be responsible for training next guy?
Maj Lopez: I am...I'll be their primary instructor for the Raptor. I'm constantly capturing lessons learned and my team helps me become a better demo pilot because after each demo, we'll sit down as a team and we'll watch the video. We'll talk about if they felt uncomfortable about something or if I could fly a maneuver a lot better...in particular, one was the Hoover pitch. It was decent but it had room to be better and based on their feedback, we did a couple iterations of it. And now I feel like after doing the demo Friday, after a year and a half, I finally figured out how to fly a good Hoover pitch.

That's teamwork! How did you get [the call sign] Loco?
Maj Lopez: Oh, you gotta buy the beer first. [laughter]

How about the other Raptor pilot here?
1st Lt. Cory Clark: I'm First Lt. [Cory] Clark, an unrecognized, unnamed fighter pilot, but a fighter pilot no less. [laughter] I am from Sanford, Maine...I joined the Air Force pretty much straight out of college. I did ROTC through UMass Lowell, Massachusetts... across town at Daniel Webster College [of] Rob Holland fame.

Yeah, Rob's okay...some sort of world champion or something.
1st Lt. Clark: ...I talked to him on the phone the other day and I had goosebumps...he's most famous person I know. So yeah, I joined right out of college, commissioned through ROTC; it took me five years to graduate college because I was not the smartest... around my senior year is when I found out I was going to go to pilot training the year after that... that was a huge shock to me. I [was] very interested and I scored high on the pilot aptitude tests but didn't have a good enough GPA or all this other stuff, so I was hugely shocked that I got a pilot slot to begin with. After college [I] moved down to Columbus, Mississippi...spent about two years down there...craziest thing was, when I got down there and started doing T-6's and whatnot, I [thought], I think I'm okay, but I don't know if I'm good enough to go the fighter route and it was crazy because I got out of the class as number 7 out of 20...and I think they only took seven... The fast-paced kind of thing like just got me energized and got me super stoked. In college I did Aeronautical Engineering, I thought I needed this to be a pilot because the way the Air Force works ...I needed a technical degree. I wasn't that interested in it, but I knew I had to do it. So, I just buckled down, but when I actually got to T-38s, I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I put my life on hold and just felt that was my life; going to work at 5:00 in the morning, staying for exactly 12 hours, because after 12 hours, you can't fly the next day...so you stay for exactly 12 hours, and to the second, you're walking in the door the next day 12 hours after that and just working my butt off. Like Loco said a bunch of times, it's all about teamwork... so many powwows... you're only allowed to be at work for 12 hours, but that doesn't say what you're allowed to do after you leave work. So, we'd always go to my buddy's house...he must have spent about five grand on this simulator thing that was the perfect representation of the inside of the T-38 [and we would keep working]...he spent too much money on it. [laughter] The drop night came...the night that you get assigned your airplane...it's about two weeks before you graduate and they always do it alphabetically. My last name's Clark so... Albertson went and then Barrett went, and then the E, F names started to go. Where was my name? [It turns out] I was the last one to go and they had been joking to me the week before saying things like, yeah, man, I just don't know if a fighter's in the cards for you... I don't know if you're going to get the Raptor…all my buddies are getting F-16's, F-15C's..they're getting all this awesome stuff and I'm thinking, I'm not going to fly fighters... I got up there and they do this whole roast thing where they make fun of you for a minute and a half and then they lower the lights and then there's a screen behind you... you can't see the screen…it lights up with what you got and I remember none of that, because I was [thinking] what is about to happen right now? I remember the sound dropped in the theater that we were in and all of my buddies..sitting off to the side all just stood up and started screaming..I can't hear a thing, and I just look over there, [they rush me] and picked me up ...I'm throwing beer on the Wing Commander and Wing Commander's wife accidentally, and I turn around and there's a Raptor on the screen and I broke down crying like a little baby, it was crazy. That was probably the most memorable thing of my life.

What about after that?
1st Lt. Clark: ...Going through the course at Tyndall, it was an incredible feeling going from the T-38... supersonic jet trainer, [the] F-5...more or less a combat capable airframe...and then going into this...so, you pretty much go from a two-seat trainer that you had a handful of solo times, to your first time [in a] 5th gen fighter, a hundred million dollar aircraft, and you're on your own. I mean you have a IP in another plane…[but] that's also a hundred million dollar airplane that you're going to fly close to. It's a lot of trust in there. I've loved every second of it...just working with all my buds and having a great time with them. ...but I got here and I think probably a month after that, Loco called me and [asked if I wanted]  to be a Safety Observer for the demo team. The only way I'd known Loco before this is [that] I followed the F-22 Demo Team …[I saw Loco at] one of his practice shows [when the team came to Tyndall] and I was like, hey...can I have your autograph? [laughter] And months after that, I was working with him and it's been awesome. It's awesome flying from place to place, working with Loco, but as a young First Lieutenant, I've been more or less...babied all the way through my career up to this point [and] I haven't had a lot of chances to be part of something big; help people, be a leader, work with enlisted or maintainers like that. Being able to work with [the team] all the time, I'm just thinking, you guys rock, man. This is so cool. What the guys [on the team] can do...I just go up, I break their planes, I come back down and I say, sorry, I broke your plane, and they fix it and get it back on the line the next day; it's incredible. [Getting debriefed by people like Loco, it's humbling, but he's making me better...he says things like] you're doing this wrong, you're doing this wrong, you do this wrong, but good job. [laughter]

What about airshows? What's cool to you about doing shows?
1st Lt. Clark: It's nice coming out here, talking to folks, where you can see how you inspire people which you don't usually get...It's awesome to come out here and see people's faces...folks are saying "we drove six hours just to see the Raptor, I've never seen one fly before" ...before I got into Tyndall I had never seen her fly either.

That's awesome. Do you guys get in a room just you two [pilots] and kind of have a quarterback's meeting and and talk about the routine for the demo?
1st Lt. Clark: Absolutely...we'll go through every single demo with the videotape with the whole team, [asking] "what do you guys think of this? How this will work?" and then the pilots will actually go back and watch the HUD footage where it may not be useful to have the rest of the team there, but you can have two pilots [making comments like] "you were a little bit left..[little more aft] pressure there, let's fix that next time" kind of thing. But yeah, he leads the debrief. …[We just discuss] what could have been done better.

Going back to your T-38 days, was there a moment where you're flying fast at low level or something where you thought 'man, this is awesome'?
1st Lt. Clark: Yeah. It's not tough to do that at all. You just have to take a second...a breather; look outside for once instead of having your your eyes down [on the instruments], that's what I try to do. Every single flight that I've ever gone on, [I try to] look around behind you because you're literally at the tip of this supersonic missile more or less... it's just so fast...especially in the 38, we're sitting so far forward and you look back and it's just this little tiny airplane with a bunch of go-go juice in it. You always have an instructor in the 38 in the back chatting with you...but...it's crazy to think there's not a lot of people that get the chance to do that, and you have the opportunity to. It's killed roller coasters for me. [laughter] When you start climbing you can look over your shoulder and see the world get smaller...it's awesome.

That's sick… and finally, Sam!
2nd Lieutenant Sam Eckholm: Hello everyone! On the team, I'm the Public Affairs Officer. What that means, briefly, is I do [the trinity] of public affairs. Photo and video is a big part of what I get to do, and get to run the social media… When I took over, we had about 17,000 followers on Instagram, which is the main outlet that we like to use, and now we're getting close to 40,000...it's been a [big] increase in growth and engagement. That's something that's been one of our goals for the team...We're definitely meeting that and it's super fun. Then, I do all the community outreach stuff..We just came from two high school visits. Everywhere we go, we like to visit either a local JROTC Detachment, ROTC, high school, junior high, elementary, hospital, VA hospital, you name it. We like to give back to the community [and] engage with them and teach them about the opportunities available in the Air Force, as well as what we do on the Raptor Demo Team...and the last part is the media...like what we're doing right now. Coordinating this when he lands, getting media out there to shoot and cover and give him interview time as well as the rest of the team...and then I...monitor them and make sure they're saying the right things, give them [themes], talking points, that type of thing as well.

 
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What's your background?
2nd Lt. Eckholm: I am originally from Dallas, Texas...My dad went to the Air Force Academy; was a pilot in the Air Force. He was a tanker pilot. My uncle also went to the academy; was a tanker pilot...My dad got out at 10 years and started flying for American Airlines and he's been doing that ever since. My uncle retired as a Colonel...whole career in the Air Force, and now he's flying for FedEx. They were both pilots and I grew up seeing that and I [thought], that's what I want to do. I remember going to an air show in about seventh grade and actually saw the Thunderbirds fly and I [thought] that was so cool. From then on [I asked myself] how do I do that? I grew up hearing stories of my dad going to the academy the whole time we'd sit at the dinner table. He talked about jumping out of airplanes, survival training, eating a rabbit's eyeball, that type of thing... All throughout high school, I was super into sports...I was on the basketball team, played tennis, played golf, and everything I did was to get to the academy...I remember ...on my first day of freshman year I went into my school counselor's office and I said, "This is where I want to go and I need your help. How can I get there?" So, we developed a plan. And I made sure that I still had fun.... I wasn't the kid that was just doing everything for one objective...I didn't want to put all the eggs in one basket, but at the same time, I wanted prepare myself to get there. I took advantage of AP classes and different leadership opportunities and really tried to set myself up to give me the best chance to get in right out of high school. I didn't necessarily want to go a different route and then try to get in later. I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to go to the academy.

How did you get in?
2nd Lt. Eckholm: I remember [it being] the craziest experience...you have to get a nomination when you go to the academy, so, I interviewed with my congressman. I'm from Dallas; it was a super competitive district and I was [thinking] there's no way…there were about a hundred kids applying for one nomination and there's only one open slot. So, I interviewed [him during] Thanksgiving my senior year and then literally every single day I'd run out to the mailbox and look to see if the letter came, to see if I got the nomination or not. It was a week before Christmas... my mom told me I got a letter and I freaked out and [ripped it] open and it's from my congressman from Dallas. It said we're going to nominate you as our principal nominee to the academy. Which means I was that number one kid, which means I'm guaranteed a slot into the academy as long as I met the minimum qualifications, which I did. So, flash forward... [I] graduate from high school and they send me out to basic training at the Air Force Academy. I'm telling you I've prepared for this my whole life, right? I was ready. I'm in the physical condition that I need to be. People are going to yell at me [and it would be fine]. I've heard my dad's stories...It was day one at the Academy and I [thought] oh my gosh, what did I get myself into? [laughter] Everything I thought I could handle, I couldn't handle. I had an incredible time there [at the academy]...the first two years were a little bit hard, just getting accustomed to everything.. kind of questioning why I did this. [laughter] I was a legal studies major. I got involved with the mock trial team. I got the opportunity to be Squadron Commander at the Academy my last year there. I was leading essentially a hundred and fifty other Cadets all under me with me being at the front, marching in front of them, giving them the commands...I did the whole JUMP program after my freshman year; got five freefall jumps and did their survival training. I literally had a list of things that my dad told me about and I wanted to do all that and more which was really cool to achieve.

How recent was that, again?
2nd Lt. Eckholm: I only graduated a year ago. This is my first assignment after. Towards the end of my time there...you guys are probably wondering how I wanted to be a pilot so much, and now [I'm here] doing PA...I got the opportunity to do the gliding program at the Academy. I got five rides in the glider. I got to fly in all different types of heavies and be around tons of pilots and it's still awesome. I love what these guys do, but somewhere it clicked that not only do I think I could best serve the Air Force in another role, but I think I would be happier being someone who can be on the ground, behind the scenes...Again, these guys have such an awesome job, but for me, I love to do just what I'm doing now in PA, which is essentially the jack of all trades job. I get to be a part of the fighter world and do this stuff [but also] be on the ground...I started to think this is [the route I wanted] to go. I had public affairs number one and got incredibly lucky to get this job. Langley Air Force Base was my first assignment and I get out there and I know not a thing about anything...I spent my first few months there just soaking everything in...I'd hear Loco flying above in the morning, I'm thinking that's so cool.

 
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How did media come into the picture?
2nd Lt. Eckholm: When I was growing up and all throughout the Academy, I have been into photography and video. These are the things that I would do in my spare time. I love making YouTube videos and when Instagram came out, I was all about that...my dream job when I was thinking about what I want to do out of the Air Force, [I thought] I want to be on TV. I want to do that type of stuff. That's why I went PA...when I heard about this opportunity, I was able to go into the interview and [tell them] I can do that higher-level, strategic thinking that the officers are trained on in PA, and also because of the photo/video stuff I've been doing my whole life. I walked into the interview and showed him some of my products...they took a chance on me and said yes...found out back in January...And seriously, this is my dream job in the Air Force; I tell everyone that and some people laugh. My first assignment, I got my dream job, but it's just been so much fun. The things I do on the weekends for fun, which was photography, video...maybe throw up the drone to see what I could get...I now do that for my job in the Air Force. I get to travel around which is probably the coolest thing about it all besides working with these awesome group of people on the team. It's just the connections you make. Two weeks ago, I was up in the back of a C-130...earlier today, I was taking pictures of the Blue Angels and Loco on an aerial photoflight...Everything I love to do, I now get to do for the Air Force for my job. It's weird. It's weird to say that.

Image Credit - 2 Lt. Sam Eckholm

Image Credit - 2 Lt. Sam Eckholm

How would you describe your style?
2nd Lt. Eckholm: All my stuff is meant to appeal to most of the younger generation, because it also appeals to the older generation...I'll literally export a video and then spend another four hours making sure [it's how I want it]... I love seeing what other media groups do on the outside...I want to try to shake things up a little bit…[I want to appeal to] bloggy, social media-type influencers, bringing that kind of attention to the demo team because those are the big accounts. Those are the people that everyone wants to see...I'm trying to just bring that over to our side and people have noticed…

Image Credit - 2 Lt. Sam Eckholm

Image Credit - 2 Lt. Sam Eckholm

You've been doing an awesome job.
2nd Lt. Eckholm: Thanks man. I only wish I had more time in the day to edit ...I took a thousand photos of Loco flying today. Sometimes the team goes out on the town and I tell them I have to stay in and edit. [laughter]

[Editor's note:] Luckily, he put in his time editing...we're honored to include some of Sam's incredible work within this interview. We're also humbled for the privilege to chat with these warriors in some of their precious down-time. Full Disc Aviation would like to graciously thank the entire F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team for everything they do. Special thanks to 2nd Lt. Sam Eckholm for this opportunity. [-np]