Families mourn, connect at 20th anniversary of fatal AWACS crash in Anchorage

Twenty years is a long time. Enough time to obscure memories, but not enough to fully erase the scars left by sudden and ruinous loss. On Tuesday, more than 500 people gathered outside the 3rd Wing Headquarters on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to both remember and heal.

Twenty years ago, on Sept. 22, 1995, an E-3B Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System jet -- call sign Yukla 27-- was knocked from the Anchorage sky, not by an enemy, but by a flock of Canada geese. All 24 aboard that day, 22 American and 2 Canadian airmen, died.

Kyle Leary, a 26-year-old who lives with his fiancee, Amanda Deese, in Palmer, was just 6 when his father, and Yukla 27's navigator, Lt. Col. Richard G. Leary, was killed.

As he peered into the early morning sun, Leary noted that he is getting ready to be a father himself: He and Deese are expecting their first child.

"I remember him kicking a football once," Leary said of his own father. "I remember when we were in Germany, in Ramstein Air Force Base, me and my two sisters would all sit at the end of the hallway and go running to him when he came home, but other than that, I don't remember anything about him."

For Leary, the loss of 20 years ago is perhaps the most lasting memory of his father.

"The hardest part is going home at the end of the day and never having a dad for my entire life," Leary said. "He doesn't get to meet my fiancée or all of his grandkids."


But Leary and the families and friends of the other 23 people killed are forever connected to each other by the crash.

"Today means a lot of different things to a lot of different people," said Col. Jay R. Bickley, a former AWACS pilot.

Bickley recalled the heroic actions of the flight crew of Yukla 27, as they tried, in vain, to stay in the air despite losing two engines on the same side of the plane. The crash -- caused by the ingestion of birds into the plane's left engines -- changed the way the Air Force handles birds near airstrips.

"As an AWACS community we stand on their shoulders and we are made better by their sacrifice," Bickley said.

For Leary, the 20th anniversary of the crash, and his father's death, has expanded his own family.

"I have found people who have been affected by Yukla everywhere," Leary said. "They remember where they were when it crashed. It is a community that has come together."

The family members and friends of those killed weren't the only ones attending the memorial held at the stone and bronze monument near the very runway from which Yukla 27 took off for the last time.

Yukla is a Tanaina Athabascan word for "eagle." The AWACS planes flying each day from JBER are still called Yuklas.

The Yukla 27 monument is next to the base's eagle pen -- an enclosed outdoor coop that's home to two bald eagles. Inside, "Notch" and "One-Eyed Jack" sat mostly silent as people spoke about the crash and how it has affected the Air Force, the base and Anchorage. Neither bird can be released into the wild, and serve as base mascots, of sorts. A wing injury grounded Notch years ago. One-Eyed Jack has no depth perception.

Toward the end of the ceremony, an E-3 slowly cruised over the gathered crowd. A formation of F-22 Raptor fighter jets thundered by, one breaking away and going straight into the blue sky, its engines' roar shaking the ground.

Then bugles and bagpipes played. Notch immediately stood from his perch and began screeching loudly, adding a mournful soprano to the thumping, somber notes of the musicians.

The symbolism was not lost on many who were there.

Some of those present cried, and others smiled. Some did both.

Note: This article has been edited to show the correct rank of Col. Jay R. Bickley.

Sean Doogan

Sean Doogan is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.