Thunderbirds honor local pilot with ‘Captain Marvel’ flyover

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Santa Clarita on Monday en route to the Hollywood premiere of "Captain Marvel" and as a tribute to fallen pilot Maj. Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno, who flew with the demonstration squadron. Cory Rubin/The Signal

Santa Clarita Valley residents watching the skies on Monday caught a glimpse of air power in action when the Air Force Thunderbirds flew over Santa Clarita and Hollywood.

Six F-16 Fighting Falcons flew across Santa Clarita and Los Angeles at 12:15 p.m. and again at  5:30 p.m. as part of the “Captain Marvel” premiere in Hollywood, and as a tribute to fallen pilot Maj. Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno, who was part of the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, more commonly known as the Thunderbirds.

MSgt. Chrissy Powers, public affairs superintendent for the Thunderbirds, said she is humbled by the opportunity to bring the Thunderbirds to the Los Angeles community.

“The cool thing is that ‘Captain Marvel’ is a pilot, and the movie shows everything she went through to become a pilot, so this is an amazing opportunity for us to come to California since we’re based in Las Vegas,” she said. “Maj. Del Bagno loved to fly and inspire the next generation to fly and to join the Air Force. The fact that we get to do this so close to his home, there are no words for it.”

Del Bagno was a Valencia resident and Saugus High alumnus who flew as the No. 4 slot pilot for the Thunderbird Squadron. He flew with the Thunderbirds for approximately six months and participated in two shows before he died in a crash during a routine training exercise. Before he became a member of the Thunderbird squadron, he served as an F-35A evaluator pilot and chief of standardization and evaluation, 58th Fighter Squadron, Eglin AFB, Florida. Outside of the military, Del Bagno was a civilian flight instructor, corporate pilot, skywriter and a banner tow pilot. He logged more than 3,500 total flight hours in more than 30 different aircraft, with 1,400 hours as an Air Force pilot.

Hernan Posada, a NASA research pilot, watched the flyover from Saugus with the Del Bagno family.

“It was a moment of tremendous pride, sorrow and emotion from the family and everyone who knew Stephen,” he said. “It was a lot of effort for the Thunderbirds to put this together and they’re not showboating, but they’re only inches from wingtip to wingtip, which is a standard part of their training. It was amazing to see this tribute come together.”

The week before his death, Del Bagno consulted on the set of “Captain Marvel,” whose protagonist is an Air Force pilot turned superhero, to advise the cast and crew, including director Anna Boden and star Brie Larson, on fighter pilot traditions, culture and practices in order to make the film accurate, according to Thunderbirds community relations team member Stephanie Engler.

‘The best of us’

Maj. Will Graeff, Thunderbird 2/left wing pilot, was Del Bagno’s fellow pilot and went through training with him. Graeff recalled Del Bagno’s infectious passion for the job Monday.

“He was the best of us as far as loving aviation and recruiting, retaining and inspiring people,” Graeff said. “He was a great dude with a positive attitude that always had a big smile and a hug to make you feel better about yourself.”

Graeff said that being able to perform a flyover to both promote the film and honor Del Bagno is even more special because the Thunderbirds rarely perform flyovers — typically only one or two per year. Ironically, Graeff believes Del Bagno was someone who would not have wanted people to go out of their way to honor him.

“The film crew couldn’t have picked a better dude to give them an accurate insight into the Air Force than Cajun,” he said. “The fact that the ‘Captain Marvel’ crew invited us out here to fly and to honor him is a testament to the impact he had on them. There isn’t a day that I don’t go up and fly that I don’t think about him and the tremendous influence he had on this team and the world, despite his short tenure.”

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About the author

Matt Fernandez

Matt Fernandez

Matt Fernandez is a local news reporter for The Signal. He is a 2017 graduate of UCLA and his previous work experience includes the Daily Bruin newspaper and Variety magazine, where he focused on arts and entertainment news. Fernandez has lived in Santa Clarita since 1998.