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Air Force fires commander of its Thunderbirds flight team, citing lack of confidence

By: Dan Lamothe, The Washington Post
November 30, 2017 Updated: November 30, 2017 at 8:05 am
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Lt. Col. Jason Heard, commander of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, signs autographs after completing a performance Aug. 27 at Dover Air Force Base, Del. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Senior Airman Zachary Cacicia - Air Force.

The Air Force has fired the commander of its Thunderbirds flight demonstration team, citing his commanding officer's loss of confidence in him, the service announced Wednesday.

Lt. Col. Jason Heard was removed from the position by Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, the commander of the Air Force's 57th Wing, after the Thunderbirds season ended Nov. 20. The unit, known formally as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, flies F-16 jets at dozens of air shows each year, serving as ambassadors for the military.

Although Heard led the Thunderbirds through a "highly successful show season," he was removed due to Leavitt's "loss of confidence in his leadership and risk management style," the Air Force said in a news release. The general determined that new leadership was necessary to "ensure the highest level of pride, precision and professionalism within the team," the announcement said, without elaborating.

"This was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one that is ultimately in the best interests of the Thunderbird team," Leavitt said in the news release. "I am personally grateful for Jason's dedication to the 2017 season."

Heard, who commanded the squadron for about a year, oversaw the unit during a June 23 mishap in which a $29 million Thunderbirds jet flipped over on the ground upon landing. An investigation ultimately determined that the pilot, Capt. Erik Gonsalves, landed with excessive air speed on a wet runway in a flight in Ohio prior to the Dayton Air Show.

"Upon landing, the pilot was unable to stop the aircraft on the prepared surface," the Air Force found. "As a result, the aircraft departed the runway and overturned in the grass."

It was not immediately clear Wednesday whether the mishap was related to Heard's removal.

Heard took command of the unit in January. Prior to joining the Thunderbirds, he flew F-15E jets, with more than 3,000 flight hours with 788 hours of combat experience, according to a cached version of an Air Force profile already removed from the Thunderbirds website.

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