The F-16 that crashed in the Nevada Test and Training Range on Wednesday morning belonged to the United States Air Force Flight Demonstration Team, more popularly known as the Thunderbirds. It's with great sadness that we inform you that the pilot of that F-16 died in the incident.
The official USAF announcement reads as such:
"A U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot was killed when his F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed over the Nevada Test and Training Range today at approximately 10:30 a.m. during a routine aerial demonstration training flight. The identity of the pilot is being withheld for 24-hours pending next of kin notification. An investigation is being conducted into the cause of the mishap.
The team’s participation at the March Air Reserve Base “The March Field Air & Space Expo” has been canceled. It is unknown how this accident will impact the remainder of the 2018 Thunderbirds Season.
More information will be provided as it becomes available."
The Thunderbirds were established 65 years ago and continue to perform in front of millions of people every year. They are the Air Force's marquee recruiting and public outreach tool. The team is composed of top airmen from all over the service and operates a fleet of approximately a dozen Block 52 F-16C/D Vipers.
This is the third aircraft loss in less than 24 months for the team. One loss occurred in June of 2016 shortly before recovering after a flyover in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The other jet was lost one year later as the result of roll-over incident in Dayton, Ohio during an inclement weather landing. Thankfully nobody was killed in either of those mishaps.
The team had gone through a somewhat sudden change in leadership somewhat recently. At the end of the last show season, Thunderbird #1, the team's commanding officer, was relieved of his position.
Lt. Col. Jason Heard was replaced by a new commanding officer by General Jeannie Leavitt, the commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base. Air Force Times quotes an official USAF release as stating:
“While Heard led the team through a highly successful show season, Leavitt lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style... Leavitt determined that new leadership was necessary to ensure the highest levels of pride, precision and professionalism within the team.”
Since Heard's release last November, two-year team veteran Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh has led the Thunderbirds.
Update: 11:30am PST—
The USAF has identified what Thunderbird team member that died in Wednesday's tragic accident, the official statement reads:
"U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron Slot Pilot Thunderbird 4, Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, was killed when his F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed over the Nevada Test and Training Range April 4, 2018 at approximately 10:30 a.m. during a routine aerial demonstration training flight.
“We are mourning the loss of Major Del Bagno,” said Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing Commander. “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 is being conducted into the cause of the mishap."
Here is the Major's bio from the Thunderbrids website:
"Maj. Stephen Del Bagno is the Slot Pilot for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, flying the No. 4 jet. He is a 2005 graduate of Utah Valley State University, and commissioned from Officer Training School, Maxwell AFB, Ala. in 2007. Before joining the Air Force, Del Bagno was a civilian flight instructor, corporate pilot, skywriter, and a banner tow pilot. He enjoys snowboarding, water sports and spending time with family and friends. Prior to joining the Thunderbirds, Del Bagno served as an F-35A Evaluator Pilot and Chief of Standardization and Evaluation, 58th Fighter Squadron, Eglin AFB, Fla. He has logged more than 3,500 total flight hours in over 30 different aircraft, with 1,400 hours as an Air Force pilot. Del Bagno is in his first season with the team and hails from Valencia, Calif."
What a tragic loss for the team, the USAF, and the country. At least it seems like Stephen Del Bagno died doing something he truly loved and while executing a mission he believed deeply in, and we are grateful for everything he gave his country.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com