U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Commanding Officer Relieved of Duty Due to “Loss of Confidence”

Lt. Col. Jason Heard, Thunderbird #1, Relieved Due to “Loss of Confidence”

Lt. Col. Jason Heard of the U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Squadron, The Thunderbirds, has been relieved of command, the USAF Air Combat Command said today in a news release. The official reason cited for his removal from the position was a “loss of confidence’.

According to most definitions, military “loss of confidence” is when a party is, “inadequate in some respect, are failing to carry out obligations, or are making decisions that other members feel are detrimental.”

Lt. Col. Heard was relieved by USAF Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing commander at Nellis AFB. In a statement released by the U.S. Air Force, Brig. Gen Leavitt was quoted as saying, “This was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one that is ultimately in the best interests of the Thunderbird team.” Brig. Gen. Leavitt went on to say in the release. “I am personally grateful for Jason’s dedication to the 2017 season.”

The official statement said, “Lt. Col. Heard led the team through a highly successful show season,” but that Brig. Gen. Leavitt, “lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style.”

The Thunderbirds experienced one accident under the command of Lt. Col. Heard. On June 23, 2017, during an orientation flight for an enlisted maintenance team member, Thunderbird #8, piloted by Capt. Erik “Speedy” Gonsalves, slid off a runway the day before the Vectren Dayton Airshow in Dayton, Ohio. It was raining at the time. The Thunderbird F-16 rolled during the accident and came to rest upside down. An official accident report later read, “Upon landing, the pilot was unable to stop the aircraft on the prepared surface. As a result, the aircraft departed the runway and overturned in the grass,” The F-16 involved in the accident was written-off.

In part of an e-mail sent to Aviation Week’s Lara Seligman, a spokesperson for the Thunderbirds, said the leadership change was, “unrelated to the Dayton incident.”

“This decision was based on Brig. Gen. Leavitt having lost confidence in Lt. Col. Heard’s leadership in risk management style. 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, ” Thunderbird spokesperson wrote in the email.

The Thunderbirds’ operations officer, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, has  assumed interim command of the team until a new commander is selected, according to Air Combat Command.

Top image: The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds taxi to their parking area During Aviation Nation 2017 Air Show at Nellis AFB while one pilot shoots a photo from his cockpit. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

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