Air Force Thunderbirds commander removed over loss of confidence
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 29, 2017
WASHINGTON — The Air Force has removed the commander of the high-profile Thunderbirds demonstration team due to a loss of confidence in his abilities to lead the touring squadron of F-16 fighter jets, the service announced Wednesday in a statement.
Lt. Col. Jason Heard was dismissed Nov. 20 as commander of the Thunderbirds – officially known as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron – and pilot of the team’s No. 1 jet. Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, commander of the service’s 57th Wing, dismissed Heard, citing a loss of confidence in his “leadership and risk management style.”
"This was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one that is ultimately in the best interests of the Thunderbird team,” she said in the statement. “I am personally grateful for Jason's dedication to the 2017 season.”
On Nov. 4, the Thunderbirds, based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, completed their 2017 season, which included more than 70 air shows. The team pulled out of a scheduled air show in June following the crash of one of the unit’s jets during training prior to a two-day performance at the Dayton Air Show in Ohio.
An Air Force investigation determined the June 23 crash was avoidable. The F-16 was traveling too fast and had insufficient stopping distance as it landed on a rain-soaked runway before it overturned, destroying the $29 million aircraft, according to the Air Force Accident Investigation Board’s report released earlier this month.
The board found the pilot failed to follow proper braking procedures and his vision was impaired by rainwater on the cockpit’s canopy. The pilot suffered minor injuries.
However, Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz, a spokesman for the Thunderbirds, said the crash was not the reason Leavitt dismissed Heard.
He said Leavitt had concerns that Heard’s leadership style was resulting in unnecessary risk within the Thunderbirds’ demonstrations, “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,” Boitz said. “As a result, absolute trust and teamwork in both our professional and personal dynamics are foundational to our mission.”
Leavitt determined the team was better off with new leadership as it begins preparing for its 2018 schedule, according to the Air Force.
Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, who has served as the Thunderbird’s operations officer since 2016, was temporarily named commander of the unit until the Air Force selects a new permanent leader.
Thunderbird officers typically serve two-year assignments with the popular demonstration team, according to the Air Force. Heard had taken command of the unit in January.
Heard commissioned into the Air Force in 1999 after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, according to his Air Force biography. He served as an F-15 weapons systems operator before becoming a pilot. Heard had previously served as commander of an F-15 squadron and had logged more than 3,000 flight hours including nearly 800 combat flight hours over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. His awards included the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In an Air Force profile of Heard published on the Thunderbirds’ website, when he took command of the squadron, the pilot described the unit as an inspiration to many people.
“To me, service as a Thunderbird is both an honor and a privilege,” Heard said. “It requires significant sacrifice rewarded by the trust our fellow airmen place in us to represent them to the public. I promise to provide adaptive leadership, maintain the standards and fly a safe show.”
The Thunderbirds 2018 schedule is set to begin Feb. 18 with a flyover at NASCAR’s Daytona 500 in Florida. The squadron’s first air show for the year is set for March 10 and March 11 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.