Las Vegas Sun

April 22, 2019

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Report: Thunderbirds pilot blacked out before fatal crash

Maj. Stephen Del Bagno

Master Sgt. Christopher Boitz/U.S. Air Force / AP

In this March 14, 2018, photo released by the U.S. Air Force, Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, Thunderbird 4/slot pilot, left, and Staff Sgt. Michael Meister, Thunderbird 4 dedicated crew chief, await the signal to start their F-16 Fighting Falcon during a practice show at Nellis Air Force Base. Del Bagno was killed when his aircraft crashed on the Nevada Test and Training Range while training on April 4, 2018.

Maj. Stephen Del Bagno

Maj. Stephen Del Bagno

An Air Force Thunderbirds pilot killed in a training crash in April blacked out during an extreme G-force maneuver, regaining consciousness only a moment before his F-16 fighter jet slammed into the ground, according to an accident investigation report.

Maj. Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno, a member of the flight demonstration team out of Nellis Air Force Base near North Las Vegas, was performing a half-loop or split-S maneuver when he crashed April 4 at the Nevada Test and Training Range northwest of Las Vegas, according to the report.

Del Bagno piloted his jet inverted for about 22 seconds before starting a descending half-loop and pulling more than 8.5 Gs — a multiple of the force of gravity felt on the body during rapid acceleration, the report said.

He blacked out for about 5 seconds and only regained some level of consciousness about a second before he hit the ground, the report said. He retook control of the plane just before it crashed but never attempted to eject, the report said.

Del Bagno, 34, of Valencia, Calif., was in his first season with the six-aircraft team, flying the No. 4 slot jet.

After the crash, the Thunderbirds canceled a half dozen shows before resuming their schedule May 19 in Virginia.

According to his team biography, Del Bagno was a 2005 graduate of Utah Valley State University and became an Air Force officer in 2007. Before joining the Air Force, he was a civilian flight instructor, corporate pilot, skywriter and a banner tow pilot.