Air Force Thunderbirds pilot killed in training crash is identified
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 5, 2018
WASHINGTON – The Air Force Thunderbirds pilot killed in a training crash Wednesday in Nevada was a longtime aviator who joined the elite demonstration team this season after two and a half years flying F-35s in Florida, according to the Air Force.
Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, 34, died in the crash at the Nevada Test and Training Range during a routine aerial demonstration training flight in preparation for a planned air show this weekend, an Air Force statement said Thursday. The Nevada Test and Training Range is near the Thunderbirds’ home station of Nellis Air Force Base, just outside Las Vegas.
"We are mourning the loss of Maj. Del Bagno," Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, commander of the 57th Wing, which oversees the Thunderbirds, said in a statement. "He was an integral part of our team and our hearts are heavy with his loss. We ask everyone to provide his family and friends the space to heal during this difficult time."
An investigation into the crash is ongoing, according to the statement.
Del Bagno, whose call sign was “Cajun,” was recently promoted to major and was entering his first season as a Thunderbirds pilot, according to an Air Force biography. He was flying the Thunderbirds’ No. 4 plane and was the demonstration team’s slot pilot for the 2018 season, meaning he flew his plane just behind the lead aircraft and between two others in the team’s tightly packed diamond formation.
Del Bagno was already an experienced pilot when he joined the Air Force in 2007, commissioning through Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. He has since served as an F-16 pilot and instructor and as an evaluator and instructor for the Air Force’s developing F-35A program, according to the Air Force. He was serving at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida as the 58th Fighter Squadron’s chief of standardization and evaluation for the F-35 program when he was selected to join the Thunderbirds.
He told a local Florida television station in September that he was excited to join the popular unit.
"The best thing is going to the airshows and getting to talk to the kids,” he told WEAR-TV in Pensacola at the time. “You can't help but get reblued a little bit and just find what it was that drove you to fly or to join the Air Force.”
Del Bagno of Valenica, Calif., began his career in aviation in 2003 as a civilian, working as a flight instructor, a corporate pilot and in sky advertising, according to the Air Force. He had more than 3,500 total flight hours of experience and had flown more than 30 different types of aircraft before his death, according to his biography.
The crash occurred as the Thunderbirds prepared to fly this weekend at March Air Reserve Base in California, an Air Force official said. The Thunderbirds – officially designated the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron – canceled their scheduled appearance at the March Field Air & Space Expo on Saturday and Sunday following the pilot’s death.
"It is unknown how this accident will impact the remainder of the 2018 Thunderbirds season,” the unit said in a statement.
This weekend’s air show was to be the third appearance of the season for the Thunderbirds. The unit has more than 30 additional appearances scheduled at events across North America through November.
The crash Wednesday marked the third major crash by a Thunderbirds pilot since 2016.
In June 2017, the Thunderbirds pulled out of a scheduled air show after one of their jets crashed during training leading up to the two-day Dayton Air Show in Ohio. The crash upon landing left the pilot with minor injuries but completely destroyed that $29 million aircraft.
An Air Force probe determined the pilot was at fault in the incident.
In June 2016, a Thunderbirds F-16 crashed following a flyover of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s commencement ceremony. The plane was destroyed in that incident as well, but the pilot escaped major injuries.
In November, the Air Force removed the Thunderbirds commander Lt. Col. Jason Heard, citing unnecessary risk taking. But a spokesman for the unit denied his removal was linked to either crash.
Air Force Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, who was already a member of the Thunderbirds team, was later named the team’s commander.
Thunderbirds pilots typically serve two-year tours with the elite aviation squadron. Considered among the top aviators in the service, Thunderbirds pilots routinely fly their jets within inches of each other performing highly difficult and dangerous stunts.
Wednesday’s crash was the U.S. military’s third in less than two days.
Four Marines were killed Tuesday when their CH-53E Super Stallion crashed Tuesday afternoon in southern California near the Mexican border. Earlier Tuesday, a Marine AV-8B Harrier attack jet crashed just after takeoff from Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, which includes the U.S. military’s Horn of Africa post known as Camp Lemonnier. The Harrier pilot was listed in stable condition on Wednesday.
Military officials are investigating all three crashes.