If you have ever been to a military air show, you know they are a magical place filled with smells of popcorn and cotton candy and the smoke left from the rolls and spins of stunt aircraft. You can climb into the belly of a massive cargo plane or explore the cockpit or a vintage fighter. Children of all ages come alive with dreams of the wild blue yonder—whether it be of flights to come or flights now long since behind them.
The main event, the one everyone stays around for in brutal summer sun on a hot tarmac, is the U.S. military flight demonstration team of either the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, or the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. These two teams take turns as the premiere act at air shows across the country each year, thrilling millions of fans with their displays or aviation prowess.
What makes their maneuvers and acrobatics so exhilarating is the speed, the precision, and ultimately the danger. Watching what these pilots are able to accomplish in those aircraft serves as a reminder—even without the added stress of combat operations—that their job is inherently dangerous. On Wednesday, that danger was made too real for the Thunderbirds when Major Stephen Del Bagno was killed when his F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed over the Nevada Test and Training Range.
“We are mourning the loss of Major Del Bagno,” Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, said in a statement. “He was an integral part of the team, and our hearts are heavy with his loss.”
Del Bagno, of Valencia, California, was known as a slot pilot who flew the team’s No. 4 jet. He graduated from Utah Valley State University in 2005, and after joining the Air Force served as an evaluator pilot and logged more than 3,500 total flight hours. Before joining the Air Force, Del Bagno was a civilian flight instructor, corporate pilot, skywriter, and a banner tow pilot. According to his biography on the team page he enjoyed snowboarding, water sports and spending time with family and friends. Maj. Del Bagno was new to the team for the 2018 season, an honor reserved to only 325 officers since the team’s inception in 1953.
Space Coast Daily had the honor of interviewing Major Del Bagno just several days prior to his death—that interview can be seen here.
According to The Thunderbirds official site, the process is meant to be a daunting one, and only the best out of an Air Force of already stellar fighter pilots are chosen:
A Thunderbirds officer serves a two-year tour of duty. To ensure continuity and a smooth transition, three of the six demonstration pilots typically change each year. Each officer must submit comprehensive career records and letters of recommendation in their applications, which are screened by the Thunderbirds commander/leader and Air Force senior leaders. All candidates who become finalists in the hiring process then accompany the team on a deployment for familiarization and first-hand evaluation by team members. Prospective pilots are also screened for flying experience and ability.
Following the pilots’ semi-finalist interviews and deployment with the team, the Thunderbirds commander selects four to eight finalists to travel to the team’s hangar at Nellis Air Force Base, where each pilot candidate performs an evaluation flight in the backseat of an F-16D. These check flights consist of formation flying and some basic fighter maneuvers. The commander/leader evaluates the finalists and sends his recommendations through the chain of command, up to the commander of Air Combat Command, before final selections are made.
Known as “America’s Ambassadors in Blue” the Thunderbirds canceled their participation in this weekend’s expo at the March Air Reserve Base in Southern California.
In moments like these perhaps the best adieu we can say to Major Del Bagno, who undoubtedly died doing what he loved, is to borrow the now infamous words of John Gillespie Magee, Jr., who said:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Rest in Peace No. 4
Featured Image: Author, Cleveland Air Show 2017