Media Team Combines State of the Art Imaging with Messaging to Shift Opinion.
For nearly a decade the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program was fighting a dogfight it had to win against ill-informed public opinion of the Joint Strike Fighter program. Along with rightful and unbiased criticism from trusted and reputable sources (including those who regularly question the usual PR support and media hype that surrounds every F-35 achievement) we have observed analysts with little technical knowledge of the F-35 program’s goals, scope or capabilities railing against its costs and effectiveness, seizing every setback in the ambitious program to pile on the rising voice of armchair critics, defense “reporters” and social media pundits. But two men on the Air Force’s new F-35 Demo Team, Senior Airman Alexander Cook and Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham, are shifting the public opinion about the F-35A Lighting II.
“First off, I think we honestly have some of greatest ambassadors in the Air Force who represent this team well”, Sgt. Stidham told TheAviationist.com in an interview. “They’re the best in their respective career fields and it shows when they’re out on the road engaging with the public. When you have a group of individuals who are all passionate about what they do, it makes our job of telling their stories that much easier. Also, the new F-35 demonstration profile that Capt. Olson and Maj. Stevens masterfully designed, tested and now performed has proven this jet is capable of more than people imagined. It’s just an incredible feeling to be able to witness and document history right from behind my lens every day.”
In late 2018, the U.S. Air Force launched the new Air Force F-35 Demo Team. The team has flown successful demonstrations at events around the U.S. already this airshow season, and added several new events to its 2019 calendar. While it may be difficult to quantify any specific shift in broad public opinion of the overall F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, it is easy to see that social media buzz about the F-35 has shifted to a decidedly more positive tone since the Air Force fielded the F-35 Demo Team.
While the aerobatic demonstration of the F-35A as flown by team leader, Capt. Andrew “Dojo” Olson, is the most impressive part of the show, the behind-the-scenes media engine that creates and drives the team’s messaging across social media is equally fast, agile, adaptive and capable. The two primary drivers of the F-35 Demo Team’s media efforts are USAF Senior Airman Alexander Cook and Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham.
Along with other members of the F-35A Demo Team, Senior Airman Cook and Staff Sgt. Stidham create and manage content for the team’s social media platforms. Both men are active duty in the Air Force and stationed at the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base. Their quantifiable results across social media for the F-35 Demo Team’s visibility are impressive.
On Jan. 10, 2019, the F-35 Demo Team had 10,200 followers on Instagram. Today the team has an impressive 54,400 followers with more added every day and notable surges in follower numbers after each air show appearance. In less than 150 days the team has added 44,200 followers on Instagram alone, that is nearly one new follower every four minutes around the clock. That is a 433.33% increase in followers in less than half a year.
By comparison, the USAF’s F-22 Raptor Demo Team, a team with a substantially longer history, 12 years on the airshow circuit and many more airshow appearances dating back to 2007, has only 48,900 Instagram followers as of this writing. In less than six months the F-35 Demo Team attracted more followers on Instagram than the F-22 Demo Team has in 12 years. Clearly, the F-35 Demo Team’s media crew is doing something very right.
F-35 Demo Team Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham told TheAviationist.com that, “The media techniques used are that like a national brand would use. We built our brand from the ground up. Richard McManus designed our patch several months before Cook and I started branding the team. Since some of the colors and fonts had already been approved on the patch we had to take a closer look into what additional colors and fonts would work well for our products while still working with everything on the new patch. We have strategically been designing and developing ideas that fit into this brand. The great thing about the F-35 Demo Team brand, is that although we aren’t even close to revealing all of our fun and creative products across our social media platforms, you’ll know that it is one of our products the moment you see/hear it. Everything revolves around being ‘The Future of Airpower’. Our products need to look and feel innovative and refreshing to our viewers as we try not only to please our long-time F-35 fans but also the next generation of Air Force fighter pilots.”
Speaking of the team’s new branding and their patch design, these have become among the hottest items for aviation fans and patch collectors. The team was showing two different versions of their new demo team patch when we spoke with them at Davis-Monthan AFB, a molded PVC/Velcro patch with the team logo and also a traditional embroidered fabric/Velcro patch with the new logo. Patches are sold by the team from their tent at airshows where they appear, and sales have been brisk.
Senior Airman Alexander Cook told us, “Being the first year as a new demonstration team, we saw a golden opportunity to re-brand and market the team. Everything from using specific fonts and colors schemes within our products to changing the way we create and post content. We wanted it to be new and innovative just like the F-35. The number one goal of this team has always been to inspire people to join the Air Force. We do our best to create the most engaging online content that resonates well with audiences”.
Along with merchandising, branding and messaging the F-35 Demo Team, their crew has also produced some truly remarkable and innovative media with never-before-seen video of the F-35 at work.
This past weekend, the F-35 Demo Team premiered the first-ever full length video showing the wide-angle cockpit view of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter during its aerobatic capabilities demonstration routine. The video is noteworthy since it includes detailed video of the F-35A control inputs from demo pilot USAF Capt. Andrew “Dojo” Olson. This is the first time video of the control movements and actuations inside the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter have been publicly released in a full-length video.
The new video was shot during the team’s recent demo flight over Miami Beach for the Hyundai Air & Sea Show on May 26, 2019.
A number of interesting insights about the F-35A and its control characteristics are visible in the new video. The amount of travel in the side-stick of the F-35A can be clearly seen as Capt. Olson performs aerobatics, moving the control side stick from stop-to-stop in full deflection rolls. Capt. Olson described the inputs on the F-35A as, “A little more than on an F-16” in an interview earlier this year.
Movement of the control surfaces outside the aircraft are also visible with inputs by the computerized fly-by-wire flight control and F-35A’s flight control system–the first of its kind to be installed in a U.S. fighter aircraft. The new flight control system uses an electro-hydrostatic actuation system (EHAS) and an automated wing leading-edge flap actuation system (LEFAS). It’s interesting to watch these systems at work on the wings and elevators outside the aircraft cockpit while Capt. Olson manipulates the controls.
At several points in the video we get to see interesting control inputs that include Capt. Olson using his left hand on the cockpit panel touchscreen to open the weapons bay doors for the weapons bay pass (1:08 in the video).
One particularly interesting moment happens at 4:04 in the video during the execution of the pedal turn. Capt. Olson reaches all the way across with his left hand to place both hands on the side-stick as the aircraft enters its tight radius, descending turn.
There is also an interesting moment at 4:38 in the video when we get a great look at the side stick fore/aft deflection for the unique square loop maneuver. At each corner of the square loop Capt. Olson can be seen pulling the side stick to the rear stop to square the corners of this unique maneuver, then pushing it back to the center position to fly the flat sides of the loop.
Picturesque Miami Beach is the perfect venue for shooting the video, with beautiful views of the beach, ocean and clouds outside the aircraft. The editing and soundtrack to video are well calibrated to cross media tastes and age categories.
The new in-cockpit video from Miami was shot using a Garmin Virb 360 action camera, but SSgt. Stidham told TheAviationist.com that they also use, “Nikon DSLRs, IPhones, Lav Mics, zoom recorders, the Adobe CC photo/video/audio platforms and just about anything else that we can get our hands on to create content.”
SSgt. Stidham went on to tell us, “The name of the game in this day and age is NOW. From national news agencies, all the way down to the little guys trying to get people to view their content, if you’re not first, nobody cares. In our regular Air Force jobs as photojournalists, SrA Cook and I are always striving to be on the same level as our civilian counterparts in the professional news industry. We have spent months working together, developing the best way to work together and get the F-35 Demo Team content out as quickly as possible. This includes immediately posting to social media from our IPhones during events and performances. Then, to create the higher-end, more produced products we rush back to our editing stations (often times anywhere with a power outlet and Wi-Fi) and start to download and process our photos, video and audio. Our two-man team makes our content unique because while one of us is at Luke Air Force Base, capturing photos and video of Capt. Olson before and during takeoff, the other person is already on the ground at the air show location waiting on the arrival to get photo/video/interview footage.”
The F-35 Demo Team’s 2019 tour continues across the U.S. with 13 more scheduled appearances around the U.S. and Canada. Their official schedule can be found here.