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Air Force Thunderbirds pilot killed during training was in his first year with unit

Air Force Thunderbirds pilot killed during training was in his first year with unit
Maj. Stephen Del Bagno was killed Wednesday when his plane crashed in Nevada. (Air Force)

The Thunderbirds pilot killed during training maneuvers at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada was identified Thursday as Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, a California native who was in his first season with the team.

Del Bagno, 34, was flying his F-16 Fighting Falcon on Wednesday morning when it crashed about 10:30 a.m. at the Nevada Test and Training Range. The cause of the crash is under investigation by the Accident Investigation Board of the Air Force.

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"We are mourning the loss of Maj. Del Bagno," Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing commander, said in a statement. "He was an integral part of our team, and our hearts are heavy with his loss."

"This is a tragic day for the Las Vegas community and the nation," Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick, whose district includes Nellis, said in a statement.

The Thunderbirds are a popular high-performance team famous for precision flying in close formation and doing a variety of aerial tricks. Air Force officials said the team's show this weekend at March Air Reserve Base in California had been canceled, and it was unclear how the rest of the 2018 schedule would be affected.

Del Bagno, according to his Thunderbirds biography, was a graduate of Utah State University in 2005, where he got his degree in aviation science. According to his LinkedIn profile, he also attended Cal State Northridge for two years and studied political science.

Del Bagno had served as an F-35A evaluator pilot before joining the Thunderbirds unit. According to his biography page, he had logged more than 3,500 flight hours in more than 30 different types of aircraft. He had 1,400 hours as a pilot in the Air Force. According to his LinkedIn page, he had been an F-16 pilot and instructor with the Air Force for four years.

The crash drew condolences from other elite flying units, such as the Navy's Blue Angels and the Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Demonstration Team. On Thursday morning, the Canadians tweeted that they "mourn with you" and applied the hashtag #FriendsPartnersAllies.

The Thunderbirds team consists of a dozen officers — eight of whom are experienced fighter pilots. Officers of the elite unit serve two-year stints and three of the six demonstration pilots change each year to maintain smooth transitions with the team.

The unit had 33 shows scheduled through the year.

The Thunderbirds have been performing since 1953, and there have been several fatalities and accidents in the unit's existence, including deaths at Hill Air Force Base in Utah in 1981 and another in Virginia in 1972.

Wednesday's crash was the third accident for the Thunderbirds since 2016. That year, an F-16 crashed doing a flyover during the U.S. Air Force Academy's commencement. The pilot survived. And last year, a fighter jet crashed before an air show in Ohio. The pilot survived.

Del Bagno, who had been a corporate pilot and civilian flight instructor, was selected for the team in June and was the first F-35 pilot to serve in the unit, according to the Thunderbirds.

In a 2017 interview with Pensacola, Fla., television station WEAR, Del Bagno said he liked doing air shows and talking to children attending them.

"So, the biggest thing I learned throughout my career, and what I tell all of the kids when I start talking to them is, 'In life, you are going to hear a lof of no's' — and sometimes it's just a test of your resolve," Del Bagno said. "So no matter what it is and how bad you want it, as long as you work hard and don't accept no as a final answer, you can always turn a no into a yes."

Wayne Mansfield, who Del Bagno worked for at the aviation firm Clear Sky, wrote on the pilot's LinkedIn page that he was "first class" in everything he attempted.

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"An officer, gentleman and fantastic pilot," Mansfield wrote. "Stephen earned everything he's gotten through hard work, discipline and focus. A great example for others to follow."

Twitter: @davemontero

UPDATES:

3:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comments by Stephen Del Bagno in a 2017 interview.

3:25 p.m.: This article was updated with Stephen Del Bagno's age, 34.

This story was originally published at 2:30 p.m.

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