Air Force fires Thunderbirds commander because of 'risk management' concerns

The Air Force announced Wednesday it had fired the commander of the service’s flight demonstration team following a crash over the summer.

Lt. Col. Jason Heard, commander of the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron known as the “Thunderbirds,” had been in command since January.

The Air Force did not give a reason for his departure but said his boss, Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing Commander, lost confidence in his abilities and believed new leadership was necessary “to ensure the highest levels of pride, precision and professionalism within the team.”

"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," Leavitt said.

Two Thunderbirds jets have crashed since the summer of 2016.

The first crash occurred in June of last year during the Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony and the traditional fly-by from the Thunderbirds F-16 jets, not long after passing over then-President Obama and the graduating cadets and their families. One of the F-16s crashed after the single engine on the jet shut down.

A year later, a Thunderbirds pilot and passenger were hospitalized following a crash while landing at the Dayton International Airport.

The Air Force said the leadership change had nothing to do with the crashes, but was carried out because there was a concern about Heard’s “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,” said Maj. Ray Geoffroy, an Air Force spokesman.
“The team dynamic in the Thunderbirds is absolutely unique. 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.  

Lucas Tomlinson is the Pentagon and State Department producer for Fox News Channel. You can follow him on Twitter: @LucasFoxNews