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Thunderbirds Replace Fallen Pilot as Team Prepares for Air Show Return

Maj. Nick "Khan" Krajicek has been named as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird 4/Slot Pilot for the remainder of the 2018 show season, replacing Major Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno, who was lost in a tragic accident earlier this year. Photo Credit: Mike Killian

America’s “Ambassadors in Blue”, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, now have a new slot pilot, the #4 position with the team, and he is a former Thunderbird himself. Maj. Nick “Khan” Krajicek, former Slot Pilot during the 2016 and 2017 show seasons, is returning to replace Major Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno, who was lost in a tragic accident during a routine training mission over Nevada on the morning of April 4.

The team has understandably been absent from air shows ever since, grieving and conducting an investigation into what exactly went wrong, while also planning their path forward. But as they say, the show must go on, and while the team has not yet announced when they will return to air shows, they are back in the sky training as of the third week of April.

Krajicek is an experienced Thunderbird alumnus who performed as the Slot Pilot during the 2016 and 2017 show seasons. Photo Credit: USAF

“You have helped us through some incredibly difficult days and aided us in our first steps on the long road to recovery,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, Thunderbird 1, Commander/Leader. “Hard days lie ahead, but we press on a little stronger thanks to you.”

Prior to becoming a Thunderbird, Maj. Del Bagno was a F-35A pilot at the 58th Fighter Squadron, based at Eglin AFB. 2018 was his first year on the team, and while his loss marked the first fatality for the Thunderbirds in 36 years, it was the third accident they’ve experienced in less than 2 years.

Major Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno describes the hi-tech layout of his then F-35 Lightning II helmet in 2017. Photo Credit: Charles Atkeison)

No official details have been released yet by the U.S. Air Force about what happened over the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) on the day he was lost, as the investigation is ongoing. The team is based out of Nellis AFB on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

“We’re grateful to have Khan coming back to the team,” says Walsh. “His experience and familiarity with our team’s mission and the demonstration profile make him the right choice as we safely make our way back on the road to recruit, retain and inspire once more.”

As of now, the team has cancelled two more upcoming scheduled appearances at the Charleston and Fort Lauderdale Air Shows, in order to facilitate Krajicek’s requalification training with the team.

Krajicek has logged more than 3,400 flight hours as a military pilot, with more than 650 hours of combat experience. He flew UH-60 Blackhawks in the Army, is an F-16C/D Fighting Falcon instructor pilot and commissioned into the Air Force in 2004. Photo Credit: USAF

However, both the Laughlin AFB Air Show in Texas and the Air Power over Hampton Roads Air Show in Virginia are being evaluated, “and are dependent on the team’s readiness to perform a safe 6-ship aerial demonstration”, says the team.

Major Krajicek commissioned into the Air Force in 2004, and has logged more than 3,400 flight hours as a military pilot, with more than 650 hours of combat experience. He flew UH-60 Blackhawks in the Army, and is an F-16C/D Fighting Falcon instructor pilot.

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Follow Mike Killian on Instagram and Facebook, @MikeKillianPhotography.

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Mike Killian

Written by Mike Killian

Killian is an aerospace photographer and writer, with a primary focus on spaceflight and military and civilian aviation. Over the years his assignments have brought him onboard NASA's space shuttles, in clean rooms with spacecraft destined for other worlds, front row for launches of historic missions and on numerous civilian and military flight assignments.

When not working the California-native enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, storm chasing, producing time-lapses and shooting landscape and night sky imagery, as well as watching planes of course.

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