LAS VEGAS — The Air Force Thunderbirds released the identification of the pilot lost in Wednesday’s crash of an F-16 Fighting Falcon during a training exercise in a brief statement issued today.
The Thunderbirds jets were in the air over the squadron’s Nevada Test and Training Range north of their base at Las Vegas when someting went wrong causing Thunderbird 4 to crash in the isolated region. The Thunderbirds six jets were conducting a normal practice flight on Wednesday morning to reherse for this weekend’s air show at March ARB in California.
The crash killed Thunderbird 4 pilot Major Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno. The team’s new slot pilot, Maj. Del Bagno, 34, was a certified F-35A Lightning II pilot stationed at Eglin, AFB, Florida. He served as an F-35A evaluator pilot and Chief of Standardization and Evaluation at Eglin’s 58th Fighter Squadron. This season marked his first with the team.
“We are mourning the loss of Major Del Bagno,” Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing Commander, said on Thursday. “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.”
The Air Force are now conducting a full investigation.
The slot pilot is the tail of the Thunderbirds four jets which make-up the diamond formation. The two solo jets are Thunderbird 5 and 6. The jets were at the beginning of their routine practice demonstration over the field located north of Las Vegas.
America’s Ambassadors in Blue have completed the first two of 62 planned flight demonstrations of their 65th anniversary season. They have cancelled their appearence at March ARB, and will likely not attend next weekend’s Sun-N-Fun air show in Lakeland, Fla.
Wednesday’s accident marks the third Thunderbirds crash in the past 22 months, and only their first casualty in 36 years. In June 2016, an F-16C Thunderbird 6 pilot had a ditch near Colorado Springs, Colorado, due to mechanical issue with the pilot ejecting safely. And, last June, a two-seat F-16D, piloted by current Thunderbird 8 Maj. Erik Gonsalves, flipped on landing due to inclemet weather in Dayton, Ohio, as the squadron prepared for an air show.
The death of Major Del Bagno is the Thunderbird’s first aircraft casulty in 36 years.
Led by new squadron leader and Thunderbird 1, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, the Thunderbirds 2 thru 6 pilots include Capt. Will Graeff, Maj. Nate Hofmann, Maj. Del Bagno, Maj. Whit Collins, and Capt. Matt Kimmel.
The Thunderbirds mission is designed to recruit the next generation of Airmen; to retain the Air Force’s highly trained warfighters; and to inspire young adults around the world.
(Charles A. Atkeison flew V.I.P. with the USAF Thunderbirds recently. He reports on aerospace and science. Follow his updates on social media via @Military_Flight.)