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Air Force fires Thunderbirds commander over ‘risk management,’ leadership concerns

Lt. Col. Jason Heard (Senior Airman Zachary Cacicia/ Air Force)
November 30, 2017

The Air Force announced Wednesday that it has fired the commander of its Thunderbirds flight demonstration team, according to a press release.

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The Thunderbirds commander, Lt. Col. Jason Heard, was relieved of command by 57th Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt after the completion of the 2017 season on Nov. 20.

“While Heard led the team through a highly successful show season, Leavitt lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style,” the release read. “Leavitt determined that new leadership was necessary to ensure the highest levels of pride, precision and professionalism within the team.”

“This was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one that is ultimately in the best interests of the Thunderbird team. I am personally grateful for Jason’s dedication to the 2017 season,” Leavitt said.

In June, an F-16D flipped over on the ground upon landing at the Dayton International Airport, injuring the pilot. According to the investigation, the pilot, Capt. Erik Gonsalves, landed about 4,764 feet down a wet 10,900-foot runway and was 29 miles per hour over the proper landing speed. The aircraft was destroyed.

According to Air Force officials, the incident did not play a factor in Heard’s firing.

“While he led a highly successful 2017 show season featuring 72 demonstrations over 39 show sites, concerns arose that his approach to leading the team was resulting in increased risk within the demonstration, which eroded the team dynamic,” said Maj. Ray Geoffroy, an Air Force spokesman. “The team dynamic in the Thunderbirds is absolutely unique. We are on the road together more than 200 days per year, executing flying operations with absolutely no margin for error. As a result, absolute trust and teamwork in both our professional and personal dynamics are foundational to our mission.”

Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, the Thunderbird’s 2016-2017 Operations Officer, has temporarily assumed command until a new commander is selected.

“The Thunderbirds are preparing for the 2018 season, training their new pilots, and look forward to inspiring crowds around the country,” the release read.