MELBOURNE — The nonprofit National Air, Sea & Space Foundation, an educational organization working for the advancement of military, commercial and civil enterprises in those three domains, is establishing a memorial scholarship in the name of Air Force Maj. Stephen "Cajun" Del Bagno, a former Eglin Air Force Base pilot selected in 2017 for the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's precision flight demonstration team.
Del Bagno died during his first season with the Thunderbirds, in an April 2018 crash during a practice session at the Nevada Test and Training Range. According to the Air Force, Del Bagno crashed after losing consciousness during maneuvers that subjected him to a massive swing in gravitational forces.
Immediately prior to joining the Thunderbirds, Del Bagno, 34, spent more than two years at Eglin AFB as an F-35 instructor pilot. He was the first F-35 pilot selected for the Thunderbirds, who fly the F-16. Prior to becoming an F-35 instructor pilot, Del Bagno had been an F-16 instructor pilot.
The National Air, Sea & Space Foundation hosts the annual Melbourne Air & Space Show, where Del Bagno and the rest of the Thunderbirds performed last March. It was the first and final show in which Del Bagno performed. He crashed 10 days later, and the foundation was subsequently inspired to create the $25,000 scholarship fund, in conjunction with the Florida Institute of Technology.
Recipients of the Cajun Scholarship will be able to use the funds for tuition in FIT's aviation program or for flight fees at FIT Aviation, the university's aviation education operation. The university has agreed to match the scholarship.
“’Cajun’ was a larger-than-life guy who touched the hearts of so many when he performed here last year,” Bryan Lilley, chairman of the National Air, Sea & Space Foundation, said in a news release announcing the scholarship. “We’re honored to establish the Cajun Scholarship in partnership with FIT and with the support of the Del Bagno family.”
“Florida Tech is honored and pleased to be the recipient of this scholarship supporting our aviation students in Maj. Del Bagno’s name,” said Gary Grant, FIT's vice president of development.
Information on applying for the scholarship will be made available to students applying to FIT, or who already are enrolled in the school. The application process will include an essay requirement, in which applicants must write on the topic "Why I Want to Fly."
"A preference will be given to applicants who reach out and get in contact with a current or former pilot from any of the three domestic squadrons 'Cajun' served, including the Thunderbirds," the news release noted. The squadrons with which Del Bagno served include Eglin's 58th Fighter Squadron.
Applications for the Cajun Schaolarship will be accepted from April 1 through June 30. The selection committee for the Cajun Scholarship will include Del Bagno's father, mother and two sisters.
“When I spoke with the family, I said we wanted the selected recipient to be who ‘Cajun’ would have chosen,” said Lilley.
In a statement, the Del Bagno family said, “We are very humbled and grateful that you have chosen to honor Stephen. He was excited to be a part of a bigger purpose and share his passion for aviation with the world."
The foundation will contribute some proceeds from the 2019 Melbourne Air & Space Show, scheduled for March 30-31 at Orlando Melbourne International Airport, to open the endowment for the Cajun Scholarship.
The foundation is inviting companies to contribute to the scholarship, and the public also can contribute through the foundation website, http://airseaspace.org.