Air Force picks new Thunderbirds leader after former commander removed

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Air Force picks new Thunderbirds leader after former commander removed

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Ty Greenlees
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds arrived at the Dayton International Airport in June, but canceled appearances at the Vectren Dayton Air Show after a team jet mishap injured a pilot. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

The Air Force Thunderbirds have a new leader after the prior commander was fired from the high-profile post.

Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, a Long Island, N.Y., native who served as the team’s operations officer this year, will take over as commander of the team that flies six F-16 Fighting Falcons in aerial formations at air shows and events around the country.

Walsh replaces Lt. Col. Jason Heard, who was removed last month after Heard led “a highly successful show season,” but his commanding officer “lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style,” an Air Force statement said.

An Air Force spokeswoman said in a Nov. 30 email Heard continued to serve in a “non-supervisory position” with the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. The Thunderbirds are based there.

The Air Force did not elaborate on specifics behind the firing, but an Air Force spokesman on Wednesday said in an email the incident was “unrelated” to a Thunderbird jet mishap in June in Dayton.

On June 23, a two-seat F-16D fighter jet slid off a wet runway in a rainstorm and flipped into a grassy area at the Dayton International Airport, injuring Capt. Erik Gonsalves, the No. 8 Thunderbird pilot and team narrator. A team member who was a passenger in the two-seat F-16D was not injured. The jet was on a single aircraft “familiarization flight.”

Gonsalves spent several days at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton and was later transferred to another medical facility for ongoing treatment. He rejoined the team based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, as narrator later in the season.

After the incident, the team canceled weekend appearances at the Vectren Dayton Air Show.

In an accident investigation report released in November, the Air Force said excessive speed and landing too far down the runway contributed to the mishap that destroyed the $29 million fighter plane.

Walsh, a former F-16 weapons tactics instructor, has served with the Thunderbirds for two years. Along with leading the team’s aerial demonstration flights, he will be in charge of the management of 140 team members.

The aviator has more than 2,600 flying hours in the cockpit, the Air Force said.

The Navy’s Blue Angels are scheduled to appear at the Dayton Air Show next June.

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