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.
“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.
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.
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.