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Thunderbirds Commander Fired for 'Loss of Confidence'

Lt. Col. Jason Heard of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron and pilot of the No. 1 jet, signs autographs after completing a performance Aug. 27, 2017, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. (U.S. Air Force/Zachary Cacicia)
Lt. Col. Jason Heard of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron and pilot of the No. 1 jet, signs autographs after completing a performance Aug. 27, 2017, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. (U.S. Air Force/Zachary Cacicia)

The commander of the Air Force Thunderbirds has been relieved of command due to loss of confidence in his leadership, the service announced.

With the season complete, Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing commander, relieved Lt. Col. Jason Heard of overseeing the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, Air Combat Command said in a release.

While "Heard led the team through a highly successful [2017] show season," Leavitt "lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style," the statement said.

"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 release. "I am personally grateful for Jason's dedication to the 2017 season."

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Leavitt, of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, said she determined new leadership was necessary to ensure the highest "levels of pride, precision and professionalism within the team."

Heard's firing comes after two accidents involving Thunderbird aircraft in the last two years. Heard, who assumed the job on Jan. 6, was commander during one of the incidents.

Before the start of an airshow earlier this year in Dayton, Ohio, Thunderbird 08 -- piloted by Capt. Erik "Speedy" Gonsalves -- flipped on a wet runway following a "familiarization flight" for a fellow Thunderbirds maintenance crew member.

At the time, Heard defended Gonsalves' efforts to recover, given the circumstances.

Gonsalves had "a lot of experience," Heard said, with 1,600 flight hours. "We land in rain all the time."

Heard added, "From the Thunderbirds that were on scene ... to crash recovery ... to fire department ... it was a tremendous effort. Very impressed and grateful."

The aircraft, valued at $29 million, was destroyed.

In a follow-up email, Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz, a spokesman for the squadron, said the leadership change was unrelated to the Dayton incident.

"This decision was made based on inputs from throughout the 2017 show season," he said. "These inputs indicated a trend of Lt. Col. Heard's approach to leading the team was resulting in increased risk within the demonstration which eroded the team dynamic."

Boitz added, "Acting on these concerns, General Leavitt determined that new leadership was necessary to ensure the highest levels of pride, precision and professionalism within the team."

In 2016, the Thunderbirds had a mishap after an accidental throttle rotation led to a malfunction and subsequent engine stall that caused the No. 6 jet to crash.

It happened after a flyover of the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation on June 2, 2016, attended by then-President Barack Obama.

Coincidentally, in April, Gonsalves took this reporter on a flight in Thunderbird 08.

Following the flight, Heard told Military.com, "The Thunderbirds have a really important mission engaging the public."

It's about "showing them what their military is capable of," said Heard, who prior to joining the Thunderbirds, led an F-15E squadron in combat as an expeditionary squadron commander. Heard at the time had more than 3,000 flight hours under his belt.

Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, the Thunderbird's 2016-2017 operations officer, has temporarily assumed responsibility of the team until a new commander is selected, according to Air Combat Command.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.