The Air Force Thunderbirds pilot who was killed Wednesday when his jet crashed outside Las Vegas was in his first season with the team.
Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, 34, died when his F-16 fighter jet crashed during routine training on the Nevada Test and Training Range about 10:30 a.m., military officials said.
“He was an integral part of our team, and our hearts are heavy with his loss,” Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, the commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, wrote in a statement.
The test range covers 3 million acres and provides 12,000 square miles of restricted airspace to the north and northwest of Las Vegas for pilots to rehearse and test warplanes.
Del Bagno joined the Thunderbird team in November, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was originally from Valencia, California, and graduated from Utah Valley State University in 2005, according to his biography on the Thunderbirds’ website. He was commissioned from Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in 2007.
Del Bagno worked under the call sign “Cajun” and was the slot pilot on the team.
“Best seat in the house,” Del Bagno said last month in an on-camera interview with Destination Brevard, a tourism website for Brevard County, Florida. The video was taken during the Thunderbirds’ most recent air show in Melbourne, Florida.
During the interview, Del Bagno said he loved flying the F-16 and urged children who are interested in flying not to give up on pursuing their goals.
“If you want to fly an F-16 like me, develop your passion, be persistent in that pursuit,” he said. “People are going to tell you ‘no’ along the way, and it’s just a test of your resolve. If you really want it, go out and make that ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’”
Before joining the the Air Force, Del Bagno was a skywriter, a banner tow pilot, a corporate pilot and a civilian flight instructor, according to his biography.
In a tweet Thursday afternoon, Gov. Brian Sandoval ordered all flags to be lowered to half-staff Friday to honor Del Bagno.
“We are grateful for your service,” he wrote.
Dawn & I are mourning the loss of one of our Thunderbird pilots today, who died in an F-16 crash near Nellis Air Force Base. Please join us in honoring our fallen Airman & sending heartfelt condolences to the pilot's family, teammates, friends & all who are grieving. https://t.co/HPcXvn68px
— Gen. Dave Goldfein (@GenDaveGoldfein) April 5, 2018
Wednesday’s crash forced the Thunderbirds to cancel a scheduled appearance at an air show at March Air Reserve Base in Southern California this weekend.
It was not immediately clear how the crash would affect the rest of the season, which has performances scheduled until early November. The team had 35 show sites scheduled for 2018. This weekend’s show would have been the unit’s third of the season.
The cause of the crash is under investigation, Air Force officials said.
Pence sends prayers
“Deeply saddened to learn of the loss of Thunderbirds pilot Maj. Stephen Del Bagno. I had the honor to meet Maj. Del Bagno when I visited @NellisAFB in January,” he tweeted. “He was a courageous pilot & an inspiring American whose service will never be forgotten. Will be praying for his family, friends and fellow Thunderbirds during this difficult time.”
Second range crash since September
Maj. Stephen Del Bagno was the second pilot to die in a crash on the Nellis range in less than a year. In September, Lt. Col. Eric Shultz was killed when the plane he was flying during a training mission crashed.