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Air Force Thunderbirds commander was fired in 2017 for grabbing pilot’s neck in bar fight, new report says

USAF Thunderbirds flying in close formation over Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. (Adam Bond/WikiCommons)
November 27, 2018

A new report has revealed that Thunderbirds commander Lt. Col. Jason Heard was fired in Nov. 2017 after he assaulted another Thunderbird pilot during a bar brawl.

An investigation found that Heard “did exhibit aggressive physical contact towards his subordinate” on Sept. 11, 2017 at an Irish pub in National Harbor, Maryland, the Air Force Times reported. The incident took place the day after the Thunderbirds performed a delta formation flyover for the Redskins season opener at FedEx Field.

The details surrounding his sudden termination was not initially known.

Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, former commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, relieved Heard in Nov. 2017, not even one year after he took command.

Leavitt said at the time, “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.”

According to a newly obtained report made possible by the Freedom of Information Act, several witnesses testified that the Thunderbirds flew way below the minimum regulated altitude for an event so heavily populated.

The report also stated that an unidentified pilot was “agitated” by Heard, who was in charge of the flyover and believed he was not adhering to protocol.

Several witnesses testified that Heard “compromised safety and violated Air Force flying regulations and FAA regulations,” the report said.

According to investigators, witnesses said the unnamed pilot told other members of his squad he thought Heard “was going to kill him” while flying.

The boiling point surfaced the day after the flyover at FedEx Field when some of the team went to an Irish pub, including the unnamed pilot and Heard.

Tensions rose after both consumed alcohol and seven witnesses said that Lt. Col. Heard placed his hands around the unnamed pilot’s neck, but a witness broke up the fight.

In the past, Heard has broken the flying regulations and FAA regulations more than once.

In July 2017, Heard took a diamond formation of the Thunderbirds supersonic on the way to the world’s largest military air show and upon takeoff to an airshow in Boise, Idaho, he tried to perform a loop.

Both incidents broke the rules and were deemed unsafe.

The report concluded that Heard’s duties as commander were “to maintain good order and discipline in the squadron he commands. By exhibiting aggressive physical contact toward his subordinate, [redacted], he demonstrated a lack of judgement [sic] and ability to effectively command his unit,” of which he failed.

Thunderbirds spokesman Maj. Ray Geoffroy said that “concerns arose that his approach to leading the team was resulting in increased risk within the demonstration, which eroded the team dynamic. … 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.”

On Tuesday, Geoffroy said he does not know what Heard’s current assignment is.

Thunderbirds’ operations officer, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh took Heard’s position.