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Thunderbirds pilot killed during practice said educating kids was a highlight of the job

Maj. Stephen Del Bagno was killed when his aircraft crashed during a practice aerial demonstration on April 4. (Master Sgt. Christopher Boitz/U.S. Air Force)
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Air Force Maj. Stephen Del Bagno laid out the advice he liked to give people hoping to become a pilot like him during an interview in September.

“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 lot of no’s, and sometimes it’s just a test of your resolve,” he said during an interview with Alabama TV station WEAR before he began flying F-16s as a member of the Thunderbirds squadron, a select Air Force group known for its aerial demonstrations.

“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,” he said.

Del Bagno’s life came to a tragic end this week when the F-16 he was flying over the Nevada desert crashed around 10:30 a.m. during what the Air Force said was a routine 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.”

Air Force officials are conducting an investigation into the crash. The Thunderbirds, who serve as ambassadors and recruiters for the Air Force, canceled an appearance at an upcoming exposition in Southern California.

A flight with the the Air Force’s Thunderbirds

Del Bagno, a native of Valencia, Calif., began his Air Force career when he was commissioned as an officer at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in 2007. A graduate of Utah Valley State University, Del Bagno had also worked as a flight instructor, corporate pilot, skywriter and banner tow pilot while a civilian.

According to a short biography provided by the Thunderbirds, Del Bagno was a fan of snowboarding and water sports and loved being with his family and friends in his spare time. He had at least 3,500 flight hours under his belt, including more than 1,400 as an Air Force pilot.

Del Bagno told WEAR that one of his favorite parts of the shows that the Thunderbirds do is getting to talk to kids about his work.

“You can’t help but … find what it was that drove you to fly or to join the Air Force,” he said.

Del Bagno was the Thunderbirds’ slot pilot, according to the Air Force Times, meaning he flew just behind the team’s No. 1 airplane as part of its famous diamond flying formation. The team, which was formed in 1953, has only eight pilots, six of whom, like Del Bagno, perform in air show demonstrations during a two-year tour of duty. The group performs a couple of times a month during the February-November show season at Air Force bases and other open sites nationwide. This year’s first show was at the Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“As the jets take to the skies and fly only a few feet from wingtip to wingtip, the crowd gets a glimpse of the awesome skills and capabilities that all fighter pilots must possess,” the team’s website says.

Four Thunderbirds pilots were killed in a crash in 1982, the team’s worst, as they were flying in a diamond formation, according to the Associated Press.

The team skipped a performance in 2016 after a plane made a crash landing in an open field in Colorado, though the accident did not result in any serious injuries. In 2017, a Thunderbirds plane skidded off a wet runway in Ohio and flipped over, trapping the two pilots inside temporarily.

Elsewhere in the military this week, four crew members died Tuesday when a Marine helicopter crashed in California during a training mission along the border near El Centro.

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