Lt. Col. Jason Heard, the commander of the Thunderbirds, has been relieved, the Air Force announced Wednesday.
Heard, who has led the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron since Jan. 6, was relieved by Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
“While Heard led the team through a highly successful show season, Leavitt lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style,” according to an Air Force release. “Leavitt determined that new leadership was necessary to ensure the highest levels of pride, precision and professionalism within the team.”
Heard was relieved Nov. 20 at the conclusion of the 2017 season, according to the Air Force.
"This was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one that is ultimately in the best interests of the Thunderbird team,” Leavitt said. “ I am personally grateful for Jason's dedication to the 2017 season.”
The Thunderbirds had a highly publicized mishap during Heard’s tenure. In June, an F-16D crashed when it landed too fast, skidded off a wet runway and overturned in the grass, injuring the pilot, according to an Accident Investigation Board. The $29 million aircraft was destroyed.
But Heard’s removal was unrelated to that incident, according to Maj. Raymond Geoffroy, a spokesman for the Thunderbirds.
“This decision was based on Brig. Gen. Leavitt having lost confidence in his leadership in risk management style,” Geoffroy said in an email to Air Force Times. “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.
“The team dynamic in the Thunderbirds is absolutely unique,” Geoffroy said. “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 responsibility of the team 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,” according to the release.