LAS VEGAS (CBS News/AP) — A U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot who died in the crash of a military jet during a training flight in Nevada Wednesday was from the Santa Clarita neighborhood of Valencia, military officials announced Thursday.
Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, 34, was killed at around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday when his F-16 Fighting Falcon known as Thunderbird 4 crashed during a demonstration training flight in the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas.
“We are mourning the loss of Major Del Bagno,” said Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing Commander in a statement. “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.”
Del Bagno had just become a “red helmet,” flying solo since January.
After receiving his wings, he was featured in a promotional video saying, “Once you dawn that red helmet that means you no longer have your instructor in the back seat, so it’s a bit surreal.”
“To be a part of the Thunderbirds is to be the best of the best,” said Mark Rosenker, a retired major general in the Air Force reserves and the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. “These are no more difficult or no more dangerous than any of the maneuvers that the typical fighter pilots are flying when they are in formation.”
The Air Force said an investigation of the crash was underway and Thunderbirds participation at March Field Air & Space Expo this weekend at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County had been cancelled.
Del Bagno’s Thunderbirds biography said he graduated in 2005 from Utah Valley State University and was commissioned two years later from Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
He was in his first season with the Thunderbirds flight demonstration team, after serving with the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida as an F-35A stealth jet evaluation pilot.
His biography credited him with more than 3,500 total flight hours in more than 30 different aircraft — the equivalent of more than 87 work weeks of 40 hours each.
Before joining the Air Force, Del Bagno was a civilian flight instructor, corporate pilot, skywriter and a banner tow pilot, the Air Force said.
A Thunderbirds spokeswoman, Sgt. Stephanie Englar at Nellis, said plans were being made for a memorial but a date had not been selected.
Officials have not said how the crash will affect the rest the 2018 Thunderbirds demonstration season.
The incident was the third U.S. military aircraft crash this week. A Marine helicopter crashed during a training mission near the U.S.-Mexico border in California’s Imperial County, killing four crew members. A Marine Harrier jet crashed at an airport in the East African nation of Djibouti. The pilot in that case ejected.
The Air Force formed the Thunderbirds in 1953. Its worst accident was the 1982 “Diamond Crash” that killed four pilots when their planes went down near what is now Creech Air Force Base northwest of Las Vegas. A malfunction in the leader’s plane led him and the three others to crash in the diamond formation straight into the desert.
The team’s last crash was in June 2016, when an F-16 went down after performing a flyover with then-President Barack Obama in attendance at an Air Force Academy graduation ceremony in Colorado. The pilot ejected and was unhurt. An equipment malfunction was blamed.
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