“Today, the Thunderbirds will resume practice flights over the Nevada Test and Training Range,” Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, Thunderbirds commander, wrote in a statement released Wednesday. “While our hearts are still heavy with the loss of our wingman Cajun, we know he’d want us back in the air and preparing to recruit, retain and inspire once more.”
Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, call sign “Cajun,” died April 4 when his F-16 crashed at the Nevada Test and Training Range during what the Air Force described as routine aerial demonstration training.
As they mourned, the Thunderbirds canceled appearances at three air shows — the March Field Air and Space Expo at March Air Reserve Base in California, the Sun-N-Fun Fly-In and Expo at Lakeland, Florida, and the Wings Over Columbus at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.
In resuming flight operations, the Thunderbirds’ flights will focus on maintaining the team’s proficiency with the demanding maneuvers of its air demonstration, Walsh said.
“They will also strengthen our confidence following a trying two weeks for the squadron,” he said.
The team also is supporting a “robust investigation process to ensure the highest levels of safety in our operations,” Walsh said. “This team and its leadership are taking a long, hard look at our processes and training to ensure we are performing our mission the right way and mitigating risk.”
While the team is resuming flight operations, it’s unknown when it will perform again, Walsh said.
”For now, we ask for your patience as we resume training operations and support the safety investigation,” he said. “We are not currently canceling any shows past Columbus Air Force Base, but we stress that further cancellations are still possible. When we do resume our show season, we’ll do so with the full faith and confidence of senior Air Force leadership that we are safe and ready to perform.”
Amid the latest spike in aviation deaths, a newly published Military Times Crash Database shows manned warplane accidents have jumped 39 percent since the 2013 budget cuts.
Walsh also thanked the community for the “unbelievable amount of love and support” for Del Bagno’s family and the squadron.
”You have helped us through some incredibly difficult days and aided us in our first steps on the long road to recovery,” he said. “Hard days lie ahead, but we press on a little stronger thanks to you.”