Months of tension over former Thunderbirds commander Lt. Col. Jason Heard’s perceived risk-taking leadership style boiled over in a “physical altercation” in a Maryland bar last September, in which Heard put his hands on another Thunderbird pilot’s neck.
Heard was relieved of command last November after a commander-directed investigation found he “did exhibit aggressive physical contact towards his subordinate," an unnamed member of the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, on Sept. 11, 2017, at an Irish pub in National Harbor, Maryland.
The report, obtained by Air Force Times via the Freedom of Information Act, said that on that evening, the unnamed pilot was “agitated” by how Heard was leading Thunderbirds flights, and felt he was not following the “rules," or flying regulations. Multiple witnesses told investigators that they were concerned about the relationship between Heard and that pilot, and that the pilot told several teammates he thought Heard “was going to kill him” while flying.
The “tense relationship” erupted in the bar last September, the day after the Thunderbirds conducted a flyover for the Washington Redskins home opener at FedEx Field in Landover Maryland.
Seven witnesses observed the altercation, the report said, and “witness testimony was consistent that Lt. Col. Heard placed his hands around [the unnamed pilot’s] neck.” Witnesses told investigators that both Heard and the other pilot had consumed alcohol that evening. One of the witnesses, who was closest to the two, intervened and broke it up, the report said.
That pilot wasn’t the only one who felt Heard was breaking the rules. Multiple witnesses testified that Heard “compromised safety and violated Air Force flying regulations and FAA regulations,” the report said.
Witnesses testified that when Heard led the Thunderbirds delta formation flyover above the Redskins game Sept. 10, 2017, they were flying at an altitude well below the minimum for a populated area, the report said.
Heard also intentionally took a diamond formation of Thunderbirds supersonic while en route to the Royal International Air Tattoo, the world’s largest military air show, in July 2017, witnesses told investigators. And in a third incident of perceived unsafe behavior, witnesses told investigators Heard attempted a loop on takeoff at an airshow in Boise, Idaho, even though the weather conditions were too overcast.
Multiple witnesses also told investigators that they perceived Heard’s leadership style to be “hostile,” the report said.
The report concluded that as commander and leader of the Thunderbirds, Heard was “charged to maintain good order and discipline in the squadron he commands. By exhibiting aggressive physical contact toward his subordinate, [redacted], he demonstrated a lack of judgement [sic] and ability to effectively command his unit.”
Heard took command of the squadron Jan. 6, 2017, and was relieved at the conclusion of the season Nov. 20, 2017, by Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, former commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
“This was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one that is ultimately in the best interests of the Thunderbird team,” Leavitt said at the time. “I am personally grateful for Jason’s dedication to the 2017 season.”
The Air Force said in a release last November that “Leavitt lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style [and] determined that new leadership was necessary to ensure the highest levels of pride, precision and professionalism within the team.”
Thunderbirds spokesman Maj. Ray Geoffroy went on to say last November that “concerns arose that his approach to leading the team was resulting in increased risk within the demonstration, which eroded the team dynamic. ... 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.”
When asked for comment Tuesday, Geoffroy referred to last year’s statements. It is unclear what Heard’s current assignment is.
Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, who was the Thunderbirds' operations officer, assumed command of the team after Heard was relieved.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.