Why Did the USAF Fire Its Top Female Fighter Pilot?

Well, that didn’t take long.

Two weeks ago, it was announced that U.S. Air Combat Command F-16 Viper demonstration team’s new leader would be Capt. Zoe Kotnik. Now the Air Force is pulling her out of the position over “mistakes” that were made.


According to Fox News, Kotnik is being removed from her leadership position due to a “loss of confidence.”

“I removed Capt. Kotnik from her position as the commander of the Viper Demo team [Monday], because I lost confidence in her ability to lead the team,” said Col. Derek O’Malley. “I know that loss of confidence is a common response from the Air Force, whenever someone is removed from a command position, and I think it’s important to understand why we take this approach.”

O’Malley suggested — but did not elaborate — about the fact that Kotnik had made mistakes, resulting in her removal from leadership:

O’Malley alluded to Kotnik making mistakes but did not further elaborate on exactly what led to her being relieved of her duties. He said he hoped Kotnik will continue to serve the Air Force despite the incident.

“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,” he said. “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. This will be a difficult time for Capt. Kotnik, but she’s surrounded by wingmen that will help her every step of the way.”


Fox News reported that last season’s Viper demo pilot, Maj. John “Rain” Waters, will resume command of the team.

Being removed from leadership due to loss of confidence doesn’t appear to be uncommon. In November of 2017, Lt. Col. Jason Heard was removed from his position by Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing commander, according to military.com.

Interestingly, however, was Kotnik’s swift removal. It’s so far unclear as to what caused the “loss of confidence,” but we can safely assume that once this news gets into feminist circles, it’s going to be a blood bath. Accusations of all colors will fly around the media despite the fact that “loss of confidence” could include a myriad of things without even stepping a toe in the territory of sexism.

The swiftness gives us a clue as to the reason, however. It’s important to remember that the Air Force made this a very big deal when she was promoted. This was important to them. Regardless, it was over in a flash, leaving us with two things to consider. This kind of demotion after a hire is usually only done when a critical — read fatal — mistake is made. Since it’s clear nobody died under Kotnik’s leadership, that leaves the fact that her leadership was compromised in such a way as to be dangerous.


It’s possible that Kotnik’s judgment was compromised due to personal reasons, possibly involving a wingman on her team.

Since they wish for her to continue on as a demo pilot, we can safely assume she’s not a bad one. Since she was given the position of leader we can safely assume she wasn’t a bad leader either.

It’s also not at all uncommon for military leaders found to be having relationships with their subordinates to be busted and punished. The relationship compromises the integrity of supervisory authority or the chain of command. Unfairness may grow within the team, or the necessary sense of trust may be damaged.

Again, they don’t want Kotnik gone, they just don’t want her to be the leader anymore.


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