PENSACOLA, Fla. — The squadron commander of the Air Force Thunderbirds was removed from his job last week in a decision based on a loss of confidence by his superiors during his single year as the team’s leader. Although the Air Force did not elaborate on the reason’s behind Lieutenant Colonel Jason Heard’s dismissal, he departs five months following the crash and total loss of a nearly $28 million F-16D Viper jet prior to an Ohio air show.
“This was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one that is ultimately in the best interests of the Thunderbird team,” Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing Commander, said on Wednesday. “I am personally grateful for Jason’s dedication to the 2017 season.”
A Thunderbird jet flipped upon landing on the wet runway at Dayton International Airport on June 23. The pilot, Thunderbird narrator Capt. Erik Gonsalves, was approved by Heard to take a fellow Thunderbird crew member up for a familiarization flight at noon. Upon landing, the jet flipped after traveling in excessive speed following touchdown, injuring only Gonsalves, the Air Force said.
Heavy rainfall and gusty winds had occurred during the morning leading up to and during the flight. The Air Force disclosed one month ago that the aircraft’s canopy was wet from rainfall during landing. The crash lead to the Thunderbirds cancelling their two show performances that weekend.
Lt. Col. Heard’s removal officially occurred on November 20, one week following the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron’s final performance of the year. Heard had served only one season with the Thunderbirds as the team’s flight commander. “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,” Air Force spokesperson Major Ray Geoffroy said on Wednesday.
Heard, who’s pilot call sign is “Shifty”, assumed command at Nellis, AFB in Las Vegas during a January 6 ceremony. Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, who served as the Thunderbirds operations officer during 2016 and 2017, will take over as temporary commander during December.
(Charles A. Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)