Twenty-four service members’ lives were lost on Sept. 22, 1995, when a flock of geese flew in front of a modified Boeing 707 taking off from Elmendorf AFB.
Aboard were 21 United States and two Canadian Air Force personnel setting out on a six-and-a-half-hour training flight. It was the only fatal crash involving an E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane since they were put into service half a century ago.
The AWACS planes are designed to monitor airspace. A rotating 30-foot dome mounted atop the fuselage has a range of 250 miles in all directions. On-board operators can spot and identify aircraft and direct interceptors where needed. The 707 can fly for eight hours without refueling and is a valuable asset for the U.S. military. It is also used by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Kingdom, France, and Saudi Arabia. The mission of the AWACS crews has been proven in conflicts in the Mid-East, including the fight against terrorist organizations, and was called upon in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Among those warriors who were lost was Eagle River resident Maj. Steven A. Tuttle, whose family was active in the community. Tuttle, a personal friend of this writer, was a surveillance officer aboard Yukla 27.
Colleagues at Tuttle’s memorial service at Eagle River Presbyterian Church laughed heartily when Rev. Kenneth Smith noted that he didn’t discuss his work, which was classified, but that “it apparently involved reading a lot of comic books.” He was in charge of airborne surveillance crews on the long flights. Surveillance operators and analysts scan screens giving views of surrounding airspace, ever vigilant for blips that indicate an unidentified aircraft that might be an intruder. Their most frequent such sightings near Alaska were Russian Bear bombers testing American response.
Yukla 27 was the call sign for the E-3 with tail number 77-0354, the “Yukla” coming from the Denaina word for eagle.
The ill-fated aircraft was stationed at Elmendorf, one of four assigned to the Pacific air defense area, according to information about the AWACS arsenal. At a memorial service held at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson two years ago, family members and friends of the lost crew were told that an aviation navigation point previously known as AWACS would thenceforth be known as Yukla in honor of the 24 who died.
Sept. 22, 1995, was a crisp fall day as Yukla 27 prepared to take off. Visibility was 10 miles, temperature at 7 a.m. 50 degrees with light winds from the south. The five-member crew and 19 mission personnel settled in position preparing for a long day patrolling the northern skies. The pilot and aircraft commander was Capt. Glenn “Skip” Rogers, Jr. with Capt. Bradley W. Paakola as co-pilot. The remainder of the crew was made up of Lt. Col. Richard G. Leary, navigator, and flight engineers Tech. Sgt. Mark A. Bramer and Tech. Sgt. Bart L. Holmes, Sr.
Others aboard were First Lt. Carlos A. Arriaga, weapons director; Staff Sgt. Scott A. Bresson, airborne radar technician; Tech. Sgt. Mark A. Collins, communications systems operator; Senior Airman Lawrence E. DeFrancesco, communications systems operator; Capt. Robert J. Long, senior weapons director;
Master Sgt. Stephen C. O’Connell, advanced airborne surveillance technician; Tech. Sgt. Ernest R. Parrish, area specialist; Airman Jeshua C. Smith, airborne surveillance technician; Staff Sgt. Raymond O. Spencer Jr., airborne surveillance technician; Maj. Richard P. Stewart, II, mission crew commander; Tech. Sgt. Charles D. Sweet, Jr., airborne radar technician; Maj. Marlon R. Thomas, mission crew commander; Tech. Sgt. Timothy B. Thomas, computer display maintenance technician; Tech. Sgt. Brian K. Van Leer, advanced airborne surveillance technician; Airman Darien F. Watson, airborne surveillance technician; Senior Airman Joshua N. Weter, computer display maintenance technician; and from Canadian Forces Master Cpl. Joseph J. P. Legaults, communications technician, and Sgt. David L. Pitcher, battle director technician.
Yukla 27’s voice recorder was recovered after the crash.
It revealed that aircraft commander Rogers was given clearance to taxi in preparation for takeoff and advised that a Hercules C-130 had just taken off. Permission to take off was given at 7:45 a.m. A minute later, the pilot announced the aircraft’s speed as 80 knots and turned the controls over to co-pilot Paakola. Less than 30 seconds after that, both Paakola and the flight engineer noted the presence of birds. Within seconds, Rogers exclaimed, “We took one!” That was followed by the flight engineer adding, “We took two of ’em.”
Paakola advised the tower as to what happened and declared an emergency. The engineer began dumping fuel as the aircraft started a left turn in a futile attempt to return to the runway.
Just two minutes after taking off, Rogers’ last words were, “We’re goin’ in. “We’re going down.”
Yukla 27’s left wing clipped a tree in the heavily wooded area on hilly terrain, then flipped over and burst into flames when it hit the ground.
Crash trucks were sent out immediately to the site only a mile from the runway, but inaccessible until a bulldozer was sent to clear the way. There were no survivors and investigators asserted that death was instantaneous upon impact.
A reporter for the Chugiak-Eagle River newspaper was assigned to the crash story. Her husband happened to be a National Guard helicopter pilot who viewed the scene shortly after the crash. He saw feathers and other indications that the cause of the disaster had been the result of bird strikes. Officials would not confirm that, however, until after an investigation was completed.
When a final report was made, it was announced that birds ingested into the two engines on the port side indeed had been responsible for the crash. It stated that the air crew did everything possible to attempt to fly the aircraft to a safe landing, but the plane was beyond their control. Had the aircraft been on a level path without obstruction, it might have been possible for the crew to survive.
Some blame was placed, however, on the control tower personnel. The C-130 that took off two minutes prior to the ill-fated flight had stirred up a flock of Canadian geese. That fact had not been made known to the Yukla 27 crew. Many of the birds apparently had settled into tall grass alongside the runway and were not visible until the E-3 Sentry approached the place where the birds were.
As a result of the investigation, strict controls were put in place to better control the geese that frequent the base. Patrols along the runway were increased as a further safety measure. Instructions were issued to make sure pilots were alerted to bird sightings in the area.
A memorial has been erected at Elmendorf to honor Yukla 27 and its crew.
A small park has a decorative block wall over which a replica of the E-3 aircraft flies; opposite is another wall which bears plaques with the names of the 24 persons who died.
While the accident that snuffed out the lives of 24 airmen was devastating to friends and family of the victims, it served to point out the threat the huge geese pose to aviators. Measures have been put in place to attempt to humanely discourage their presence near runways. Even so, bird strikes continue to be a problem for military and civilian aircraft—whether small planes or large passenger aircraft.
On Jan. 15, 2009, a bird strike led to the ditching in New York’s Hudson River of US Airways Flight 1549. Pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger made the decision to land in the river when the A320-214 Airbus lost power after striking geese. All 150 passengers and five crew members survived and were rescued. The flight bound for Charlotte, NC, had taken off from LaGuardia and was airborne for only three minutes.
There have been three other known crashes involving the E-3 fleet, none of those involving fatalities. In 1983 an AWACS plane collided with a refueling tanker but both were able to land safely. Less than a year after the Elmendorf tragedy, an E-3 overran the runway and went into the sea in Greece. In 2007 at Nellis AFB in Nevada, an E-3 was severely damaged in landing when the plane’s nose wheel collapsed.
Even though satellites and improvements in electronic capabilities have significantly improved detection of aircraft in recent years, the AWACS planes continue to provide an important role in America’s defense system. One E-3 flying at 30,000 feet can keep an eye on 200,000 square miles of airspace in any weather. It’s comforting to know they’re there.