- Barrie Barber Staff Writer
The leader of the Air Force Thunderbirds was fired from the high-profile post after his commanding general lost confidence in the pilot, according to the Air Force.
Lt. Col. Jason Heard, who commanded the team during a visit in Dayton in June, led a “highly successful show season,” but his commanding officer “lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style,” an Air Force statement said.
Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada where the team is based, removed Heard from the top pilot’s job.
“This was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one that is ultimately in the best interests of the Thunderbird team,” she said in a statement. “I am personally grateful for Jason’s dedication to the 2017 season.”
Heard, who flew the No. 1 jet, was in his first year of a two-year tour of duty with the famed team that flies six red, white and blue F-16 Fighting Falcons in tight aerobatic formations.
His removal was effective Nov. 20, at the conclusion of the 2017 show season, the Air Force said.
Additional details were not released on the reason behind the firing. But the team had a major mishap in Dayton on June 23 when a Thunderbird jet slid off a wet runway and flipped over in a grassy area at Dayton International Airport a day before the Thunderbirds were set to perform in the Vectren Dayton Air Show.
Capt. Erik Gonsalves, the No. 8 team pilot who did not fly in show formations but narrated performances, suffered leg injuries and was hospitalized for several days at Miami Valley Hospital. A crew member who was a passenger in the two-seat F-16D was not injured.
After the accident, the team canceled weekend appearances at the air show. Heard spoke about the incident at a televised press conference in Dayton after the mishap.
In an accident investigation report released this month, the Air Force said excessive speed and landing too far down the runway contributed to the mishap that destroyed the $29 million fighter plane.
The team’s canceled Dayton appearances marked the second consecutive year a military jet team scrubbed flying at the Dayton Air Show.
In 2016, the Navy’s Blue Angels canceled several performances, including in Dayton, after a fatal crash killed a pilot during a practice air show in Tennessee.
The Blue Angels are scheduled to return to the Dayton Air Show on June 23-24, 2018.