Meet the Pilot: Lt. Col. Paul 'Loco' Lopez of the F-22 Raptor Demo Team

Nov 06, 2019

Lt. Col. Paul “Loco” Lopez is the pilot and commander of the F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team, which showcases the capabilities of the world’s premiere air-superiority fighter to millions around the world. Lopez joined the military after graduating from North Carolina A&T, where he studied mechanical engineering and earned his commission through the university’s Air Force ROTC program. Following graduation, Lopez trained on the T-6 Texan II and the T-38 Talon before flying F-15s with the 71st Fighter Squadron. He has flown the F-22 Raptor since 2011.

What Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation warbird most captures your imagination?

All of the warbirds that fly with the AFHFF capture my imagination, but the P-38 Lightning captures it most of all. Its revolutionary design fascinates onlookers every time it flies. The twin booms and the central nacelle that contains the cockpit and armament are distinctive features that make it stand out from other fighters. It was known as the fork-tailed devil by the Luftwaffe.

I am humbled to have the privilege to fly in the formations and showcase American airpower during Heritage Flights.

What is your favorite part about Heritage Flight? 

My favorite part about Heritage Flight is being part of a team of dedicated and highly-trained professional aviators and maintainers who come together to preserve the heritage of the United States Air Force and honor the legacy of the veterans who have served, who continue to serve, and who will serve in the future. 

Have you ever flown a vintage warbird?

I have flown in the backseat of the P-51 Mustang and it was amazing! 

How did it feel?

It was exhilarating to be strapped into the fighter that’s considered the hero of WWII. I was grateful for the opportunity to be sitting in the back seat when the propeller started turning and the Mustang came to life. Once we took to the sky, I started thinking about what it was like when fighter pilots learned to tame the Mustang on their first flights and fly them into combat.

How did it compare to flying a modern fighter?

Flying in the warbird was a humbling experience because I was able to experience, see and feel how far our country has come in regards to aviation innovation - from piston engines to supersonic jets.

What was it like learning to fly in formation with vintage planes? What was the most difficult part?

It was surreal learning to fly in formation with vintage planes. Young aviators went to war in those airplanes and it gave me a perspective of what it might have been like to fly in formation en route to a training area or combat zone.

I am humbled at the journey I have been on to get me to this point. The USAF trained me and gave me the tools to fly the premier air-dominance fighter and display American airpower near and abroad. The icing on the cake is getting the opportunity to receive excellent training from legends in the aviation community during the Heritage Flight Training Course.

The most difficult part is leading a formation and having the warbirds fly off the wing of your modern fighter. They call it having a wingman/flight lead mentality, and the key to success is having a deliberate crosscheck of looking at your airspeed/altitude, looking at the line of sight rate of your wingman moving fore/aft on your wing and making small power adjustments to arrest/lead turn the line of sight rate and ensuring the overall safety of the formation. 

What historic aviator do you most look up to? 

The list is too many count. We all stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us and paved the way in aviation. I recently read the biography of Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James and he was quoted saying, “The power of excellence is overwhelming. It is always in demand, and nobody cares about its color.” The AFHFF celebrated 20 years as a program and it is a privilege for me to have this unique opportunity in representing the USAF as a member of the F-22 Demonstration Team. 

Lt. Col. Paul "Loco" Lopez, F-22 Demo Team commander, flies alongside U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation P-38 pilot, Greg Anders, during the Thunder over Georgia Air Show at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., Sept. 28, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Samuel Eckholm)
Paul "Loco" Lopez performs during a demo team practice on Joint Base Langley-Eustis, February 13th, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ericha Guyote)
Paul 'Loco' Lopez, F-22 Demo Team commander and pilot, performs the 'tail slide' maneuver during an aerial demonstration at the SkyFest air show in Spokane. Washington, June 22, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Samuel Eckholm)