When Lightning Strikes: The F-35 Demo Team

Uncategorized April 28, 2021

Have you ever been to an airshow and watched the F-35 Demonstration Team perform? There’s nothing like seeing pilots pull off maneuvers in the Lightning II at 9Gs. But did you know that the Demo Team does more than just entertain crowds at high speed? In this blog, we take a closer look at the Demo Team and the F-35 Lightning.

Closeup of F-35 Lightning II

Closeup of F-35 Demo Team F-35 Lightning II. (USAF photo)

Where Is the Demo Team Based and What is Their Mission?

Originally assigned to Luke Air Force Base (AFB), AZ, the F-35 Demo Team relocated to Hill AFB, Utah, as part of the 388th Fighter Wing (FW) in 2020. The Demo Team operates under the US Air Force Air Combat Command, along with the F-16 Thunderbirds, the A-10 Thunderbolt Demo Team, and the F-22 Raptor Demo Team.

F-35A Lightning II Demo team pose in front of F-35 at Hill AFB, Utah

Members of the F-35A Lightning II Demonstration team pose in front of F-35 at Hill AFB, Utah. (USAF photo by SSgt. Zachary Boyer)

The F-35 Demo Team is comprised of one pilot and maintenance, operational support, and public affairs airmen. Their mission is to educate, inspire, engage, and recruit the next generation of Airmen.

Father and daughter watch F-35 Lightning take off

Father and daughter watch F-35 Lightning take off. (USAF photo)

Demo Maneuvers

The F-35 Demo Team typically gives an 18-minute demonstration during airshows. They perform rolls, loops, high-degree bank turns, and other maneuvers—some at .95 mach, just below the speed of sound. They even perform a maneuver called the “Weapons Bay Door Pass”, where the pilot opens the F-35 weapons bay door during flight, so that spectators can get a peek at the inside of the aircraft from the ground.

Maj. Kristin "Beo" Wolfe performs Weapons Bay Door Pass in F-35

Maj. Kristin “Beo” Wolfe performs Weapons Bay Door Pass in F-35 Lightning II. (USAF photo)

But the Demo Team doesn’t just perform maneuvers to entertain crowds. Another important part of their mission is to educate the public on the combat capabilities of the F-35. Major Kristin “Beo” Wolfe, Commander of the Demo Team for the 2020 – 2021 airshow season, said the team showcases “maneuvers that we would potentially use in a combat situation, replicating things we might do in a dogfight or ‘basic fighter maneuvers.’” [1]

F-35 Lightning II flies upside down

F-35 Lightning II flies upside down. (USAF photo)

More Than Entertainment

Because the F-35 Demo Team belongs to the 388 FW at Hill AFB, they not only stay performance ready for airshows, but they stay combat ready as well. The Demo Team uses F-35s for airshows that also belong to the 388th. The 388th maintains combat readiness for the F-35A Lightning II worldwide and currently has an inventory of 78 aircraft. The Demo Team’s F-35s “come straight off the flight line from [a] combat-ready squadron,” meaning that, at any time, they could be used in active combat without being modified.

F-35 Lightning II at sunset

F-35 Lightning II at sunset. (USAF photo)

How Good is the F-35, and How Did It Get Its Name?

Let’s take a closer look at the F-35 Lightning II. The F-35 is a fifth-generation all-weather, multirole combat aircraft that combines speed, precision, and stealth. It was officially named at the Joint Strike Fighter Inauguration Ceremony on 7 July 2006. Lockheed Martin and the US Air Force named the F-35 “Lightning II” after the P-38 Lightning. The P-38 Lightning had the most air-to-air kills in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and America’s top two aces scored all of their victories—40 kills and 38 kills, respectively—in the P-38.[2]

A P-38F Lightning and F-35 Lightning II displayed together

A P-38F Lightning and F-35 Lightning II displayed at Lockheed Martin Corporation, for a special ceremony in recognition of the past and present fighter aircraft. (US Navy photo by 2nd Class D. Keith Simmons)

The F-35 can travel Mach 1.6 (~1,200 mph), and its engine can produce 43,000 pounds of thrust. Its stealth capability makes it so the F-35 can spot enemy aircraft long before being detected first. But what makes the F-35 unique is its advanced situational awareness system. The F-35 was designed with the entire battle space in mind. It provides unsurpassed, 360-degree situational and environmental awareness through its Helmet Mounted Display System. This means that altitude, airspeed, rate of climb, and information on other planes in the vicinity are all displayed on the pilot’s helmet visor.

F-35 Lightning II

F-35 Lightning II (USAF Photo)

The helmet’s optical sensors align with the pilot’s pupils. The information displayed on the helmet visor is based on where the pilot’s view is directed. The images displayed align with the pilot’s natural field of view.

F-35 Lightning II Helmet

F-35 Lightning II Helmet (USAF photo by Senior Airman Brett Clashman)

Making History

Leading the team that gets to showcase the F-35 and all this great technology is Kristin “Beo” Wolfe. In 2020, Wolfe became the first female to both pilot and command the F-35 Demo Team. Prior to being named as Demo Team Commander, Wolfe was an instructor pilot for the F-22 Raptor. She transitioned to the F-35 in 2017. When she’s not flying in airshows or practicing airshow maneuvers, she is an F-35 instructor pilot for the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill AFB.

Maj. Kristin "Beo" Wolfe in F-35 Lightning cockpit

Maj. Kristin “Beo” Wolfe, F-35 Demo Team Commander, in F-35 Lightning cockpit. (USAF photo)

Wolfe said, “Whether it’s flying low-levels in the snowy mountains of Idaho, flying in ‘Star Wars’ canyon in Alaska next to glaciers, being inverted at 300 feet or doing a pedal turn during the routine, those are the moments I love.”[3]

The 2020 COVID Airshow Season: Anything but Typical

At the beginning of the 2020 airshow season, Major Wolfe and the Demo Team were scheduled to perform 20 shows throughout the year. (During a normal season, the Team can travel up to eight months out of the year.) But COVID made the Team’s 2020 schedule anything but typical. The Demo Team performed only 12 of 20 originally scheduled airshows.

F-35 Lightning II Demo crew watches F-35 Lightning II fly overhead

F-35 Lightning II Demo crew watches F-35 Lightning II fly overhead. (USAF photo)

Because of COVID, the Team had to reshape their operations in order to safely engage with the public. Many of the Team’s airshows during the early part of 2020 were cancelled when the pandemic brought travel to a halt. However, with the introduction of socially-distanced airshows—virtual, drive-in, and over-the-water airshows—the Demo Team began performing again in May 2020.

F-35 Lightning II Demo Team with school kids

F-35 Lightning II Demo Team with school kids pre-COVID. (USAF photo)

During normal airshows, the Demo Team holds “meet and greets” with local schools, ROTC detachments, and Civil Air Patrol squadrons. But because of COVID-imposed limits on in-person meetings, the Team found a new way to connect with the public through community outreach, virtual meetings, video conference calls, and by increasing their social media presence. The Team met virtually with nearly 1000 cadets and aviation enthusiasts.

F-35 Lightning II Demo Team performs at airshow

F-35 Lightning II Demo Team performs at airshow. (USAF photo)

Major Wolfe said, “We had a lot of unique obstacles and challenges this season that made our inaugural year at Hill a one-of-a-kind experience.” After finishing the 2020 performance season Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander, said. “We were the first wing to fly the F-35A operationally, the first to deploy it into combat, and now we’ve accomplished another unique milestone. We’re extremely proud to have the F-35 Demo Team here at Hill Air Force Base, showcasing the operational mission of our wing to the American public.”[4]

F-35 Lightning II

F-35 Lightning II (USAF photo)

The 2021 Season

This year marks the F-35 Demo Team’s third year as a demo unit, and its second year as a combat jet demo team. The team spent the winter months recuperating and practicing for the 2021 season. The Team’s 2021 season kicked off with the Air Combat Command’s Heritage Flight Training Course held at Davis-Monthan AFB. As of April 2021, the Team is scheduled to perform 13 airshows between May and December.

F-35 Lightning II Demo Team practice

F-35 Lightning II Demo Team practice near Hill AFB, Utah. (USAF photo)

[1] Sumner, Capt. Kip. “Education or Operational: F-35 Demo Team showcases combat capabilities.” 388th Fighter Wing, 12 Feb. 2021. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.

[2] Fraser, Colin. “Top 10 U.S. Fighter Aces of World War II.” War History Online, 18 April 2017. Accessed 13 April 2021.

[3] Sumner, Capt. Kip. “Behind the helmet of the F-35A Demonstration Team’s newest pilot.” 4 Mar. 2020. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.

[4] Sumner, Capt. Kip. “F-35 Demonstration Team completes its first year at Hill Air Force Base.” 388th Fighter Wing, 17 Dec. 2020. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.

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