Nellis AFB Wing Boss Talks To Us About His Novel Aggressor Paint Job Facebook Contest And More

We discuss aggressor paint schemes, social media, what it's like leading such a big outfit, and what's new at Nellis with General Robert Novotny.

57th Wing Commander/Public Domain

A new aggressor paint scheme is bound to grab the attention of the military aviation community. They are always covered closely here at The War Zone. In recent years, both the Air Force and the Navy have put out stunning new paint jobs, many of which closely replicate the schemes worn by potentially hostile fighter jets that America's front-line pilots could face in combat zones overseas. Sometimes these paint jobs emerge out of nowhere, other times they are rumored to be in the works. But never before has one been chosen from a structured crowd-sourcing contest on social media, at least until now. 

This is exactly what Brigadier General Robert Novotny did on his Facebook account over the last couple of months. Instead of internally developing a new scheme for one of the 64th Aggressor Squadron's Block 32 F-16C/D Vipers, he co-opted his followers on Facebook and ran what ended up being a totally unconventional, but highly successful and engaging interactive contest. This resulted in an exciting new look for one of the squadron's aggressor jets, and one that is ripped from the flight line of one of America's most prominent adversaries. The War Zone did an article about the contest as it was unfolding, which serves as a good primer on the topic which you can read in full here

After writing that article, we kept an eye on the contest as it progressed. Once it wrapped up, we reached out to General Novotny, the commander of the vaunted 57th Wing that oversees Nellis Air Force Base and the sprawling Nevada Test and Training Range, and he was happy to answer all our questions about the contest, the value of aggressor paint jobs, how he came to use social media in such a unique way, what the life of Nellis's 'wing king' is like and more. 

His answers provide a unique insight into his demanding leadership position and how being really hands-on with the public in a job that is not always conducive to the free flow of information can be a great thing for all involved. 

How are the 64th Aggressor Squadron's paint jobs traditionally chosen?

Historically we evaluate other nation’s air force’s aircraft, tactics and techniques for best practices or evolving challenges to our method of employment. Sometimes that includes camouflage, cover and concealment methods too. Long ago, when aerial combat almost always involved visually acquiring the adversary, an enemy aircraft paint scheme could provide an advantage by either delaying detection, i.e. it blended in with the background environment, or it could confuse a pilot by masking its aspect angle or range. As a result, 64th Aggressor paint schemes are normally chosen from realistic adversary paint schemes. 

The selections depend heavily on inputs from our Russia and China Fighter Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). The last update to the 64th Aggressor paint schemes occurred in 2016 when we introduced the Su-35S ‘Splinter’, Su-35S/Su-34 ‘Shark’(Dark Grey top/Light Blue bottom), and the Dark Grey J-20 paint schemes. We selected these schemes from adversary platforms that were at or near initial operational capability (IOC).

 

USAF

What prompted you to go to Facebook and start a voting contest for the unit's next adversary scheme?

I love this job, and I love what we do at Nellis AFB, so I want to take any opportunity to boast about our fine men and women who do great work for their nation. Social Media gives me a chance to connect directly with the folks who have a similar passion for military aviation. 

I had a great time running the 48th Fighter Wing Commander Facebook page when I was the Wing Commander at Royal Air Force Lakenheath in England. We had such a rich rapport with our UK hosts who have an energetic aviation community. You might not know it, but I believe Las Vegas is a great military city. The people who live here have been around military and civil aviation since before World War II. The Nellis Gunnery Range and Howard Hughes himself saw the aviation benefits of operating here locally. At our wing meetings, I pitched the idea of going to social media with some ideas for a paint scheme and see if we got any response…the rest is history!

USAF

Novotny, a fighter pilot with the majority of his time in F-15s, commanded the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath before taking the reins of the sprawling 57th Wing. 

 How did you organize the contest? Was the response what you expected?

I started by gathering some recent open source pictures of new paint patterns and just started shopping them online to my Commander’s Facebook audience. I also solicited ideas with some caveats that they be realistic and relevant. The response was better than I hoped. Lots of unique patterns came to light and I even had part-time artists contact the page and design their own submissions. Some were good, some not so good. Once we get close, we started narrowing them down and I put the patterns to a vote for the crowd to cast their ballots. 

57th Wing Commander's Facebook page

An example of some of the schemes that were voted on.

57th Wing Commander's Facebook page

An example of some of the schemes that were voted on.

 

Tell us a bit about the scheme that got chosen and the other finalists. Did you have a personal favorite?

The Su-57 “digital shark” won the contest. To be honest, it ran away with the vote. I did like the winning pattern, as did the Aggressors, but I also had my eye on a Su-57 splinter shark that didn’t get many votes.  We were concerned that the contest could go awry, but the fans of the site did a great job and I think they truly wanted a relevant and realistic pattern, as well.  

57th Wing Commander's Facebook page
57th Wing Commander's Facebook page
57th Wing Commander's Facebook page
Russian MoD

The paint scheme is based directly on one that is currently being flown on Russia's Su-57 fighter. 

 

How is the 64th AGRS taking to this new way of selecting a paint job for one of their F-16C/Ds?

The 64th Aggressors are very excited about the new Su-57 ‘Digital Shark’ paint scheme. Any opportunity to better replicate adversary fighters is welcomed as it affords our professional aggressors another tool to train warfighters to win in combat.

You are an accomplished fighter pilot with time in many types of aircraft, but you spent the most time in F-15s. Since you have plenty of first-hand knowledge, do these paint jobs really make a difference in air combat training? What purpose do they serve beyond looking awesome?

Yes, the aggressor paint schemes serve a purpose other than just looking cool. In the book Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs, Steve Davies coined the phrase “Buck Fever.” He described Buck Fever as the emotion a new hunter feels the first time they aim a rifle at a deer. The Red Eagle pilots extended this concept to air-to-air combat.  

​​​

Maj Francis “Paco” Geisler stated, “The first time I saw a MiG-17, I just stopped flying the airplane.” The Red Eagles believed that exposing pilots to real MiGs in training was the only way to avoid Buck Fever in combat.  Although the 64th Aggressors are not flying actual MiG aircraft, we use adversary paint schemes to help mitigate the risk of Buck Fever. Based on that threat-representative training, our warfighters are much more likely to arrive at a merge, visually identify the enemy, and KILL! 

I know that when I merge with an Aggressor flying this paint scheme, it will get my attention!

 

Tyler Rogoway/Author

When will this new scheme emerge from the paint barn? Will it also be unveiled on your Facebook page?

We’re working that right now. We are hoping to have it out before summer. Our plan with our Public Affairs team is to do a time lapse video of the actual work that goes into painting this bird and show all of our fans the fruits of their labor. The rollout will not be quiet!  

USAF

A 64th AGRS Viper undergoing repainting. Each jet is on roughly a six-year cycle to for repainting. You can read all about the process in this past article of ours

There has been a trend recently in which USAF leadership engages less with the press and the public directly. You are very active on social media and people seem to really love it. What are your thoughts on military leadership embracing outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in a personal and very direct way?

I see quite a few folks in the USAF engaging on social media. Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright is a good friend and he’s very active on social media. My boss General Mike Holmes, Air Combat Command (ACC) Commander is engaged. Former wing commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing Colonel Thomas Palente was great on his site too. I’m not sure it’s a reluctance to engage on social media, more so some folks might be too busy from time to time. We do have to be careful about what we say and how we engage, but I think there can be great value. During Hurricane Michael for example, I know our ACC and Tyndall teammates did well getting the facts to the public.  

USAF

One of the 64th Aggressor Squadron's most beloved schemes is the 'splinter' paint job that was applied a couple of its jets after the 65th Aggressor Squadron, which operated F-15C/Ds and first wore the scheme, was shuttered due to budget cuts in the earlier part of the decade. You can read more about this decision in this previous piece of mine. This particular splinter scheme is inspired by the paint jobs worn by early Su-35 development aircraft. 

As the 'Wing King' of the vaunted 57th Wing, you seem to be really enjoying your job. You have posted a lot of content showing you going to the small arms range with airmen and flying with various units under your command and some of the many visiting units that use Nellis as a base of operations for unique training. What are your favorite experiences so far?

I love being around our young Airmen and watching them do amazing things. I also love everyone’s personal story about why they joined and what they’ve accomplished since putting on the uniform. I think I’m able to connect with folks in the wing and the “truth data” I get because of it is priceless. Couple that with flying a fighter over Las Vegas from time to time…you can’t beat this job.

USAF

General Novotny at the small arms range with fellow airmen. 

How is commanding such a large, diverse, and complex wing different than your past assignments?

I find this wing is challenging because of the diversity of the mission set.  We execute Red Flag exercises in the 57th Wing, but our international partners are customers, our allies, our combat units, the headquarters all have vested interests in how Red Flag helps increase readiness. Similarly, the Weapons School produces weapons officers for every single major command, from special operations to mobility to attack and reconnaissance. Finally, the Thunderbirds are the most recognizable organization in the Air Force and the Chief of Staff has a keen interest in what they’re doing to recruit, retain and inspire Airmen.  Because of these factors, the vast diversity and outside impact, I find I spend lots of my time dealing with very senior leaders and multiple other commands.  

57th Wing Commander's Facebook page

General Novotny flying with a C-130 crew that was visiting Nellis for the unique training environment only it can provide

 Nellis AFB and the nearby Nevada Test and Training Range are very busy places. What are you looking forward to in 2019?

No rest for us – we’ve already started Weapons School Class 19A, Red Flag 19-1 and 19-2 are right around the corner, our AMMOS (Advanced Maintenance and Munitions Operations Schoolhouse} just started a new course, Green Flag West, which is in full swing, all the while our new Thunderbird team is in the middle of the training season with a target to certify in mid-March. Whew! 

We are working on small changes to Red Flag…we want to get it back to its roots with shorter, more tactically focused Flags designed to increase a unit’s readiness for strike package-type operations. We are building a new course in the Weapons School concentration on high altitude intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. And in July, the Thunderbirds are headed to Colombia, which has not happened for years.  

In November, we’re hosting Aviation Nation at Nellis…our big open house and airshow. Finally, we are lucky to have great relationships with the Las Vegas community, from the city governments and elected officials, to the businesses downtown, and professional sports teams like the Vegas Golden Knights. We’re even talking with the future Las Vegas Raiders on how we might build a relationship as they move to the area.

USAF

The just a small chunk of the sprawling Nellis AFB flightline at night. 

Do you have any other social media contests in mind for the future?

You’ll have to wait and see. I’m getting lots of ideas from my young folks, let me tell you!

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com