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JBER prepares to commemorate deadly 1995 AWACS crash

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 14, 2015

A somber ceremony on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson this month will mark 20 years since the base's worst air disaster: the crash of a surveillance and communications aircraft that claimed two dozen lives.

Twenty-two Americans and two Canadians died the morning of Sept. 22, 1995, when their Boeing E-3 Sentry jet, an AWACS or Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, given the radio call sign Yukla 27, crashed on takeoff from Elmendorf Air Force Base during a training mission.

According to JBER spokesman Jim Hart, several dignitaries have been invited to the Sept. 22 event, which will be closed to the public. Air Force Col. Jay Bickley, a member of Yukla 27's 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron at the time of the crash, will be a featured speaker as relatives of the fallen gather to commemorate their loss.

"Many of the families will be there, but not all of them," Hart said.

The E-3 -- a converted Boeing 707 airliner carrying a powerful radar system as well as an airborne battle staff that could direct dozens of other aircraft -- went down shortly after a flock of Canada geese flew across its path on takeoff. Roughly 30 geese were struck by the jet, with both engines on the plane's left side losing power after ingesting geese. The aircraft nosed over into trees and exploded about a mile from the runway, killing everyone onboard.

An Air Force inquiry into the crash found a "systemic failure" by base officials to keep runways cleared of birds, with several officers subsequently disciplined, but none court-martialed. Since then, the base has deployed noise generators, fake coyotes and armed hazing teams with night-vision goggles to deter or kill geese or other larger birds that gather near the base's runways.

Yukla 27's crash was the first ever for the E-3 fleet, which had seen 100,000 successful missions in Air Force service with no loss of life. It remains JBER's most deadly aviation accident and ranked at the time as Alaska's fourth-deadliest plane crash.

Privacy will be a key feature of this month's ceremony as loved ones collect personal mementos of the AWACS crew for a time capsule being assembled in conjunction with the event.

"The families are asking that nobody be there when they bury the time capsule," Hart said. "I think they're going to take it out to the site to bury it."

A JBER online post commemorating Yukla 27 lists the airmen who died in the crash:

--1st Lt. Carlos A. Arriaga, Weapons Director

--Tech. Sgt. Mark A. Bramer, Flight Engineer

--Staff Sgt. Scott A. Bresson, Airborne Radar Technician

--Tech. Sgt. Mark A. Collins, Communications Systems Operator

--Senior Airman Lawrence E. DeFrancesco, Communications Systems Operator

--Tech. Sgt. Bart L. Holmes Sr., Flight Engineer

--Lt. Col. Richard G. Leary, Navigator

--Master Cpl. Joseph J.P. Legault, Canadian Forces, Communications Technician

--Capt. Robert J. Long, Senior Weapons Director

--Master Sgt. Stephen C. O'Connell, Advanced Airborne Surveillance Technician

--Capt. Bradley W. Paakola, Co-pilot

--Tech. Sgt. Ernest R. Parrish, Area Specialist

--Sgt. David L. Pitcher, Canadian Forces, Battle Director Technician

--Capt. Glenn "Skip" Rogers Jr., Aircraft commander

--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

--Maj. Steven A. Tuttle, Airborne Surveillance Officer

--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