NELLIS AFB — A "large contingent" of Eglin Air Force Base's 33rd Fighter Wing will be in Nevada on Wednesday to attend funeral services for Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, the Thunderbirds pilot killed in an April 4 crash, according to the wing's senior public affairs officer.
The private services will be held in the Thunderbirds Hangar at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, home of the Air Force's precision flight team.
Prior to being selected for the team last year, Del Bagno — call sign "Cajun" — had been at Eglin AFB for two years. He served as an F-35A evaluator pilot with the 58th Fighter Squadron, part of Eglin's 33rd Fighter Wing. Flying with the Thunderbirds had been a long-standing ambition for Del Bagno, and he was the first F-35 pilot chosen for the team.
"It was a dream, something he always aspired to," Lena Lopez, a public affairs officer for the 33rd Fighter Wing, said on the day following the fatal crash.
Del Bagno's plane went down on the Nevada Test and Training Range during what the Air Force called “a routine aerial demonstration training flight.”
Wednesday's private memorial service will begin at 4:44 p.m., a recognition of Del Bagno's place on the Thunderbirds. He flew the team's No. 4 F-16 fighter jet, in the "slot" position directly behind the lead F-16 and between the two F-16s on the outside of the formation.
Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, commander of the Thunderbirds and pilot of the No. 1 jet, said in a prepared statement issued Monday that Del Bagno's death "comes as a shock to his family, friends and wingmen. We remember Cajun as an Airman, a warrior, a talented fighter pilot and a great friend with more than 3,500 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft. He lived to fly and inspire the next generation."
Wednesday's memorial service will "honor Cajun’s legacy and celebrate his amazing life," Walsh said.
In the aftermath of the 34-year-old Del Bagno's crash, the Thunderbirds canceled a scheduled April 7-8 appearance at an air show at California's March Air Reserve Base. Walsh said the team will also cancel a scheduled April 14-15 appearance at a Lakeland air show, and a planned April 21-22 appearance a Columbus AFB in Mississippi.
"Further cancellations may occur and we’ll keep you posted as the schedule takes shape," Walsh said. "We are a resilient team of high-performing professionals and we’re holding each other up, but we recognize we can’t always do it all alone, which is why we have a robust network of agencies supporting us as we mourn and recover. ... (W)hen the time is right, we’ll get back to executing our mission: to recruit, retain and inspire."
As with all Air Force crash investigations, the investigation into Del Bagno's crash will proceed on two fronts — a safety investigation and an accident investigation. The safety investigation, now under way in the April 4 Thunderbirds crash, is designed to prevent future mishaps, according to the Air Force's Air Combat Command. The accident investigation is designed to provide a report for public release.
Both investigations are conducted by boards comprising Air Force personnel. Safety investigation boards typically comprise six to 10 officers and senior enlisted personnel, headed by a colonel. Accident investigation boards are headed by a senior pilot and include another pilot along with a "maintenance expert, flight surgeon, judge advocate and any other needed specialists," according to the Air Combat Command website.
Safety boards, routinely convened within days of a crash, have 30 days to prepare a report. Accident investigation board proceedings begin with a review of the safety board report, and typically conclude within 60 to 90 days. Parts of the safety board investigation report, and all of the accident board investigation report, are subject to public release.
In his Monday statement, Walsh took time to thank the people who have reached out to the Thunderbirds since Del Bagno's crash.
"Thousands upon thousands of you have offered kind words of encouragement, condolences and loving tributes to Cajun’s legacy," Walsh said. "We are deeply moved by your compassion and we ask that you continue to keep Cajun and his family in your thoughts."
Locally, the 33rd Fighter Wing has no immediate plans for a memorial service, according to Lt. Savannah Stephens, the wing's chief public affairs officer.
"In respect of the Del Bagno family, the 33rd Fighter Wing is holding off on the possibility of a memorial service here until the funeral services are over," Stephens said in an email.