Maj. Stephen "Cajun" Del Bagno
AKA “The Big Cat”
Stephen dreamed of being an Air Force pilot nearly his entire life. The infatuation started at age 3 when his maternal grandfather took him to his first military air show. His paternal grandfather would also regale Stephen with stories about his Army Air Corps days, serving his country as a flight engineer/bombardier in World War II on a B-25 which helped inspired Stephen to follow in his footsteps and serve his country.
Stephen began his quest to become a pilot while still in high school by volunteering to clean toilets, wash hangar floors and airplanes in exchange for flight lessons. He earned his pilot’s license before graduating as a senior in 2001. Stephen landed his first flying job when he was 20 and on the very same afternoon suffered a compound fracture of his right knee. The prognosis from the doctor was that he would be lucky to walk without a limp and would never run or fly under his own power again. Stephen refused that outcome and with the support from his family and friends, two knee surgeries and months of physical therapy, he successfully achieved full knee mobility and transitioned back to flying.
Stephen’s dedication to aviation was evident by the experience that he gained throughout the following years. He became a corporate pilot with Sequoia Air, flew for Aviad Aerial Advertising towing aerial banners and performing skywriting functions as contracted by various clients, was a flight instructor for CP Aviation where he instructed students for Private, Instrumental and Commercial single and multi-engine land aircraft. All while attending college online at Utah Valley State University. In 2005, he earned his bachelor’s degree in Aviation Professional Pilot and Flight Instructor ratings.
Every year Stephen would return to Saugus High School to conduct a Career in Aviation Seminar to encourage students to pursue a career in the aviation field. He strived to be a role model to young people, as he had done his entire life, whether it was by being the captain of the varsity soccer team, godfather to his niece, Chief Pilot in charge of training at Aviad, recipient of the Gold Medal Award in the Regional Occupational Program of Wild-land Firefighting, and Top Male Student Athlete of the Year in 2001 at Saugus High School.
Stephen joined the Air Force and commissioned from Officer Training School, Maxwell AFB, Alabama in 2007. He attended Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Whiting Field, Florida and Vance AFB, Oklahoma. After completing Pilot Training as a distinguished graduate, recipient of the Air Education and Training Center (AETC) Commander’s Trophy, and Flying Training Award in 2009, he served across multiple Major Commands (MAJCOMs) and two major weapons systems.
Stephen went on to serve as an F-35A Evaluator Pilot and Chief of Standardization and Evaluation for the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin AFB, Florida. As the Chief of Standardization and Evaluation, he evaluated and instructed F-35A formal training unit instructor pilots and students while maintaining flying regulations and checklists. He also served as functional check pilot to inspect aircraft coming out of depot or unusual maintenance and he was the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses and Training phase manager. In addition, Maj. Del Bagno also served as the 58th Fighter Squadron Chief of Training, and the Executive Officer to the 33rd Operations Group Commander.
In 2017, Major Stephen Del Bagno was selected to serve as the Slot pilot for the United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. He was the first F-35A pilot to serve as a Thunderbird. During his transition to this new assignment in 2018 Stephen also obtained his Master of Aeronautical Science, Aviation Aerospace Management Degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Florida. As Thunderbird #4 Slot Pilot, he flew the #4 jet, aft of #1 and between the #2 and #3 jets. In addition to the slot position, he was also the squadron’s Chief of Scheduling.
On April 4, 2018 Thunderbird #4, Major Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno, perished when his aircraft crashed during a routine training mission over the Nevada Test and Training Range. He was laid to rest during a public funeral service at 4:44 P.M., Sunday, April 15, 2018 at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California where he received full military honors, including a three-rifle volley, taps and a missing man formation flyover, consisting of two F-35 Lightning IIs and two F-16 Fighting Falcons.
Throughout his life and Air Force career, Stephen followed his heart, fought back from adversity and was determined to make his dreams a reality through hard work, dedication and sacrifice. His loss came as a shock to his family, friends, fellow airman, community and country. Stephen will be remembered as a warrior, talented fighter pilot, a good dude and a great friend. He had more than 3,500 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft and lived to fly and inspire the next generation. How lucky were we to have lived in Cajun’s presence? Blue skies and fair winds, Big Cat!
- 2005 Bachelor of Science Degree in Aviation Professional Pilot, Associate of Science and Associate of Applied Science in Aviation Science, Utah Valley State University, Orem. Utah
- 2007 Officer Training School, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
- 2013 Squadron Officer School, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
- 2018 Master of Aeronautical Science, Aviation Aerospace Management Degree, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Fla.
- May 2007-August 2007, Officer Training Student, OTS, Maxwell Air Force Base (AFB), Alabama
- January 2008-November 2008, Pilot Training Student, VT-3, Whiting NAS, Florida
- January 2009-August 2009, Pilot Training Student, 25th Flying Training Squadron, Vance AFB, Oklahoma
- October 2009-December 2009, IFF Student, 435th Fighter Squadron, Randolph AFB, Texas
- January 2010-November 2010, F-16C Student, 309th Fighter Squadron, Luke AFB, Arizona
- December 2010-December 2011, F-16C Wingman, Scheduling Officer, 35th Fighter Squadron, Kunsan AB, ROK
- December 2011-May 2012, F-16C 4-Ship Flight Lead, Chief of Safety, 35th Fighter Squadron, Kunsan AB, ROK
- May 2012-November 2013, F-16C 4-Ship Flight Lead, Asst. Chief Standardization and Evaluation, 14th Fighter Squadron, Misawa AB, Japan
- November 2013-June 2014, F-16C Instructor Pilot, Chief of Scheduling, 14th Fighter Squadron, Misawa AB, Japan
- June 2014-April 2015, F-16C Instructor Pilot, Flight Commander, 14th Fighter Squadron, Misawa AB, Japan
- May 2015-July 2016, F-35A Instructor Pilot, Executive Officer, 33d Operations Group, Eglin AFB, Florida
- July 2016-November 2016, F-35A Instructor Pilot, Chief of Training, 58th Fighter Squadron, Eglin AFB, Florida
- November 2016-September 2017, F-35A Evaluator Pilot, Chief Standardization and Evaluation, 58th Fighter Squadron, Eglin AFB, Florida
- September 2017-April 2018, Thunderbird #4, Slot Pilot, Nellis AFB, Nevada
Major Awards & Decorations
Meritorious Service Medal
Aerial Achievement Medal
Air Force Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters
Combat Readiness Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Korean Defense Service Medal
Global War on Terrorism Service Medal
Rating: Senior Pilot
Military Flight Hours: More than 1350
Military Aircraft Flown: F-35A, F-16C/D, T-38C, and T-34C
The 4 P's to Prosperity
Stephen lived his whole life by these principles which he recently defined as the 4 Ps to Prosperity.
Find your Passion – This is the fuel that propels you to be the best you can be!
Purpose – This is defined by your goals, dreams and ambitions. Anything is possible! Write your own story and live your dream!
Persistence – In life you will hear a lot of no’s, often it is simply a test of your resolve. Success is nothing more than when opportunity meets timing and preparation. You must preserve and push for the things that you want in life and develop your “never say die” attitude.
Personability – Be humble in your success, credible in your knowledge and approachable in your interactions. You never know who you are talking to or how that person’s day, month, year or life is going. Treat them the way you would want to be treated. You can be the spark that fuels their 5 P’s, or they can even reignite yours!
Prosperity (AKA Payoff)
If you lead your life with passion, purpose, persistence and remain personable you will be the best version of yourself, someone that everyone will want to be around, a person of character, dignity and respect and you will ultimately prosper.