Families mark 20 years since tragic loss of AWACS crew

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kyle Johnson
  • JBER Public Affairs
Friday, Sept. 22, 1995 started out peaceful enough. Overcast skies were giving way to the heat of the sun, taking with them the last testimony of rain from the night before. Scattered clouds ranged from 5,000 to 20,000 feet, and visibility was 15 miles.

For Elmendorf Air Force Base flightline personnel, it was to be a light work day; the F-15 Eagle squadrons had water-survival training, and the 517th Airlift Squadron had several aircraft on rotation to Japan.

Regional flooding in the Kenai Peninsula dominated the state headlines, accounting for an estimated $5 million in combined private and public damages.

Somewhere on the flightline, crew members of E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System 77-0354, call sign "Yukla 27," methodically completed their pre-flight checklist.

After the essential checks, the tower gave approval for launch.

"Yukla Two-Seven Heavy clear for takeoff, runway five," said Capt. Glenn Rogers over the crackling radio.

"Clear for take off, crew," came the tower's response.

At 7:46 a.m., Yukla 27 rolled down Runway Five, the din of its four TF-33-PW-100 turbofan engines piercing the calm morning air as it began a routine reconnaissance flight.

A flock of about thirty Canada geese had been on the flightline, and just as Yukla 27 left the runway, so did the geese.

"Lot of birds here, we took one, we took two of them!" Rogers said. "Elmendorf tower, Yukla Two-Seven Heavy has an emergency."

Despite the severity of their situation, Yukla 27's crew began their emergency procedures with practiced professionalism.

"Lost number two engine, we've taken some birds," Rogers announced as Canada geese were sucked into the aircraft's engines.

"Start dumping fuel."

"Start dumping," a different crew member responded.

Rogers grappled with physics, attempting to control the aircraft well below its stall speed.

"Yukla Two-Seven Heavy, roger, say intentions," The tower radioed the crew - a different voice this time.

"Yukla Two-Seven Heavy coming back around for an emergency return."

Yukla 27 only made it about 270 feet into the air before vanishing into the birch forest 3,500 yards northeast of the flightline.

It was 7:47:12 a.m.

"We're going down," Rogers radioed his last transmission. "Two-Seven Heavy, emergency."

On its tragic 14,058th hour of flight, the 18th E-3 manufactured at the Renton, Wash., factory became the first sentry to fall in the line of duty.

Its 24 crew members, including two Canadian Armed Forces personnel, all perished.

Families and community members saw a mushroom of black smoke above an orange fireball from miles away, as roughly 125,000 pounds of JP-8 jet fuel exploded, immediately destroying the aircraft.

In a matter of 42 seconds, the peaceful Friday morning turned into a nightmare, which still haunts families and the community two decades later.

Sept. 22, 2015, 20 years to the day after the Yukla 27's final flight, more than 150 friends and family members gathered in a frigid Alaska morning, having flown in from all over the world to honor the 24 crew members lost that day - each with their own reason, their own memories and their own story.

The current 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron stood in formation in full service dress honoring the professionalism of those who came before them.

"It was a day much like this, the only flying that day was the AWACS because the jets had finished flying," said then-Chief Master Sgt. Tracy Matthews, Operations Group superintendent in charge of maintenance for the 3rd Operations Group at the time and guest speaker at the memorial service.

"The aircraft took off, but as soon as you heard it go down the runway, you knew something was wrong. I had the corner window right there," Matthews said as he gestured to the south side of the 3rd Operations Group headquarters building. "I ran to the other side of the building. You could see the smoke. From that point on I knew we were dealing with tragedy."

Matthews now works as an emergency planner in disaster management for the Federal Aviation Administration. He said he still wonders how much Yukla had to do with his civilian career path.

Third Wing hosted the memorial service at the Yukla 27 monument outside the 3rd Operations Squadron headquarters building. The service was followed by a private ceremony at the site of the crash exclusively for family members and ended with a reception in Hangar 1 where family and friends could meet the families of the other crewmembers.

"Over the past few years, I've had several conversations with members of the community who have expressed their thoughts, memories and emotions about that day: Sept. 22, 1995," said Lt. Col. Erik Gonzalez, 962nd AACS commander. "I've come to realize Yukla 27 is indelibly wrapped into the fabric of the Anchorage community, the JBER community and larger Alaska history."

Gonzalez was the first of many guest speakers at the memorial, and he shared how the crash affected him as a young lieutenant.

"In 1999, as a newly minted lieutenant, I arrived at the 962nd," Gonzalez said at the ceremony. "Some of the more seasoned pilots in the squadron took me out to the crash site my first September in Alaska, where we offered a toast to fallen aviators. In that moment, the idea of fraternity became a salient one. In that moment I experienced a bond with men I had never met. In that moment, I understood what it meant to walk on hallowed ground."

After Gonzalez opened the event, several speakers came forth, one of whom was Kerry Long, an Alaska-region administrator for the FAA at the ceremony.

"We celebrate the 22 American and two Canadian aviators who sacrificed their lives upon the altar of freedom as crewmembers of Yukla 27," Long said as he addressed the crowd.

Long explained how, after leaving the runway, jets are instructed to proceed to a point roughly 15 miles in the air created by the FAA. This point for Yukla 27 was known as the AWACS fix.

"The FAA is renaming the AWACS fix to the Yukla fix," Long said. "From now on, when an AWACS jet uses the Yukla departure and fix, her crew, the controllers, and all of us will be reminded of these 24 warriors."

Col. Karen Mansfield, assistant adjutant general for the Alaska Air National Guard spoke next.

"The 962nd was my second active-duty station," Mansfield said. "As a lieutenant and a captain, I flew at the squadron from 1991 until August of 1995."

Mansfield was reassigned to a different duty station just one month before the accident, now she has brought with her a bit of good news to an understandably somber event.

"A scholarship fund has been created to support those families and each individual has written a paper in admiration of one of the 24 that we lost that fateful day." Mansfield said. "At the start of the next semester, the Yukla foundation will purchase all textbooks needed to further your scholastic career.

It's been my honor to be able to be a joyful part of the presentation and part of contributing to the family members of the Yukla 27."

Col. Jay Bickley, the vice commander of the 12th Air Force, and E-3 Sentry aircraft commander from February 1992 to May 1995, wrapped the speeches up.

"You always hope - and [this] goes across the board for aviators - that you would handle yourself in a crisis situation well," Bickley said. "That you would discharge the duties well and faithfully, that if you were ever faced with that tragic situation in an airplane ... that you would act well.

I will tell you, my entire career I've been overwhelmed and blown away by the unbelievable professionalism of that crew."

After the guest speakers expressed their condolences for the families gathered in front of them, and they recalled how the tragedy has shaped them in some way over the past 20 years, the narrator announced the names of each fallen crew member.

As the names were called out, a current member of the 962nd AACS placed a flower on the individual memorial of a fallen crew member  and rendered a salute.

Nothing disturbed the reverence of the moment. Other than the muffled sniffles of the family members and the occasional click of a camera, the entire ceremony was wrapped in silence.

Then, every military member present rendered a sharp salute, and the silence was broken by the mournful cry of bagpipes playing taps. An E-3 flew over the gathered mourners.

"To the family members, I truly can't understand what this day means to you," Bickley said as he neared the conclusion of his speech. "I wouldn't even pretend to try. It must bring back a wound, a wound that probably never fully closes.

"I know it must be a memory of a knock on the door or a phone call. That horrible, horrible phone call we all hope never comes," Bickley continued.

"But I also hope today as you look around at the newest members of the 962nd, those of us who truly stand on the shoulders of the giants who perished that day - I hope as family members, you understand we don't forget, we will never forget their sacrifices and they will always be our brothers in arms."

The significance of this wasn't lost on the family members who traveled thousands of miles for the observance.

"My brother was Steven Tuttle," said Deanne Frank, who took time off work and traveled from Fredericksburg, Virginia "I'm the middle child out of the family, Steven was the oldest, I'm one of five - four remaining. We came up for the 10-year memorial and, at that time, there had been questions about whether the squadron would continue, so for us it's been nice knowing they haven't been forgotten."

Mike Miranda, from Old Town, Idaho, visited for the first time since 1995 to honor his youngest brother, Stephen O'Connell.

"It's important, everybody suffers in different ways," Miranda said. "It's important to be here. I'd like to see it happen as often as possible."

In his speech to the crowd, Bickley said Yukla 27 was one of the top 10 percentile of aircraft investigations where no fault was found in the crew in any way.

It is now standard procedure for E-3 pilots to fly the Yukla 27 Scenario in the simulators, not to see what could be done differently, but to see that even when a crew does everything right, everything can go wrong.

"Everyone who has a history with AWACS will know exactly where they were when they heard the words of Yukla going down," Bickley said. "It impacted the community in ways we'll never really know. It made us more aware, it made us better, it made us do things differently to try and avoid such a tragedy from ever happening again."

To that end, the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program was heavily modified and passed into the hands of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Every time the program successfully clears wildlife from flightline areas, the memories of Yukla 27 potentially save lives.

"There's a memorial in a cemetery in northeast India to the allied dead who, in 1944, repulsed a large enemy force during a decisive, two-month long Battle of Kohima," Long said. "The memorial consists of a stone pedestal with a cross at the top and a bronze panel just below it."

"Known as the Kohima Epitaph, the text on the panel reads: 'When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow, we gave our today.'"

"For our tomorrows, they gave their today, may we always be worthy of their sacrifice," Long said.