JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
Surviving family members, distinguished guests and members of the 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron gathered for a solemn memorial ceremony Sept. 22, 2020, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, to honor the 24 Canadian and U.S. Airmen lost in one of the deadliest aircraft accidents in U.S. Air Force history.
Twenty-five years ago, the crew members of a U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft assigned to the 962nd AACS, call sign “Yukla 27,” prepared for a routine surveillance training sortie. As the aircraft accelerated down the runway and took off, a flock of Canada geese took flight from the airfield directly into the aircraft’s path.
Voices on the cockpit voice recorder said one of the engines ingested a bird. Then, two engines, causing an uncontrollable roll to the left.
“Go to override,” said a voice on the cockpit recorder. “Elmendorf tower, Yukla Two-Seven Heavy has an emergency...start dumping fuel...coming back for an emergency return...lower the nose, lower the nose.”
Despite the crew doing everything right, everything went wrong.
At 7:47 a.m. on Sept. 22, 1995, after a mere 42 seconds in the air, Yukla 27 tragically crashed into the birch forest 3,500 yards northeast of the airfield, killing everyone on board.
“I was in the 7th grade on my way to school and I remember seeing the smoke plume,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Clint Hammer, 962nd AACS director of operations and native of Anchorage. “I didn’t know what it was, but found out later that day about the tragedy.”
“Now, being back here, it just continues to sink in,” Hammer said, who is on his second assignment to JBER. “It’s important for people to understand what the unit went through and how big a deal it was for the Air Force as a whole, and for the Anchorage community. We recognize here in the unit how important it is to never forget those folks who made that ultimate sacrifice.”
The ceremony commenced at Yukla 27 Memorial Park, on a cool, cloudy September morning. In honor of those lost, the event began with the presentation of the colors, national anthem, invocation, and recognition of the family members who were able to attend.
After thanking those in attendance and those watching online, Hammer described his experience as a teen seeing the Yukla 27 crash and how he feels now as a member of the AWACS community.
“It was traumatic, I could feel it then,” Hammer said. “But what I could not then— and cannot now - imagine, is the impact the accident had on those with real personal connections to those on board. All I know is it must have been incredibly hard and overwhelmingly sad. But the fact the losses were so unbearable and felt so intensely is a testament to the impact those Airmen have on those who knew them.”
Hammer concluded his speech by reading a poem written by retired U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jim Rosado, who was assigned to the 962nd AACS from January 1990 to June 1994 and personally knew the crew members.
The gathered families, friends and squadron members were silent as each Yukla 27 crew member’s name was announced and an Honor Guardsman ceremoniously placed a rose before their individual memorials.
The formal ceremony was followed by a more social gathering at the crash site, where a toast was made to the lost crew. A ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the opening of the pavilion built by Daryn Moore, member of Scouts BSA Troop 54, for his Eagle Scout Project to protect the memory box and cross. Hammer dedicated the pavilion as “Hangar 27.”
There at the crash site, family, friends and former squadron members shared stories of those they lost, their connection to the squadron, and expressed appreciation for the memorial ceremony continuing in honor of the Yukla 27 crew.
“Go on and make the most of your life, that’s the way to honor them, and things like this ceremony that help us to never forget,” said retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Bauer, who was stationed at JBER from 1991 to 1995 as a 381st Intelligence Squadron Russian linguist and flew with members of the 962nd AACS. “Their families can come and see [the memorial and crash site]. I’m glad they still do it. I’m glad I came.”
“We think about the crew everytime we come on base,” said Barry Neal, friend of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard G. Leary, a navigator on Yukla 27. “I can always remember the AWACS taking off as I go down the road toward the flightline.”
The Neal family and Leary family have been friends since 1987, when they met as neighbors.
“Our families were about the same age so our kids played with each other. I was an Army captain; he was Air Force. I knew him as a friend.”
Although both families moved out of Alaska in 1991, Neal said he and Leary told each other they would move back one day. Leary returned first and built a home in 1994. About a month prior to the accident, Neal and his family came up to visit the Learys and ended up purchasing a property.
“[Leary] stood on the property we picked and sketched out a house,” Neal said. “During the 20th [annual memorial ceremony], I took the picture he had sketched for us and put it in the time capsule. Our house doesn’t look exactly the way he sketched it, but we took in some of his ideas into the design of the house. We still live four doors down from Kathie, his wife. We’re always doing stuff with the family and it’s very special to come out here and be part of this.”
“For the first couple years it was very difficult for me to come out here,” Neal said. “I’d get ready to come out and then say, ‘You know, I can’t do that.’”
“The crash left a huge hole in each of our hearts and psyches, which is still there to this day,” said Rosado, who attended this year’s Yukla 27 memorial ceremony at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. “I will never, and can never, forget their faces and their personalities. That is a personal treasure for which I am eternally grateful.”
The year following the accident, Yukla 27 Memorial Park was constructed in front of the 3rd Wing Headquarters building on JBER. Twenty-four bronze plaques engraved with the crew members’ names are displayed along the arcing memorial wall, encircled by 24 spruce trees — one for each of the lost crew members. An AWACS replica is in the center, modeling Yukla 27’s flight plan that morning in a climbing left-hand turn. U.S. and Canadian flags fly over the memorial as a solemn reminder of the nations’ shared loss.
An aviary houses two rescued bald eagles adjacent to the memorial wall, a connection to the 962nd AACS’s motto: Eyes of the Eagle. A plaque at the site states that “yukla” comes from the word for “eagle” in Dena’ina (Tanaina), the Athabascan language of the Cook Inlet area.
“The eagles at the memorial site are very precious to us,” said Rosado, now an Oklahoma Corporation Commission Oil and Gas Division administrative assistant. “They are a reminder that we who are left to honor our loved ones are survivors, just as those eagles are survivors.”
In honoring their ultimate sacrifice, all AWACS pilots and flight engineers go through the Yukla 27 crash scenario on a flight simulator as part of their initial qualification training. The training serves to gain appreciation for the impossible situation the crew went through, and to reinforce the importance of technical order procedures.
The accident also heavily influenced the Bird Air Strike Hazard, or BASH, program which reduces wildlife hazards to aircraft operations.
“It was a big deal for the aviation community world-wide to recognize the threat flocks of geese can pose,” Hammer said. “There’s no way to tell how many lives have been saved due to the BASH program, how many incidents just like this were prevented. You could never know, but it’s more than zero.”
Although this year’s ceremony was originally planned to be much larger, attendance was limited to mitigate the potential spread of the novel coronavirus. The event was livestreamed for those unable to attend.
“We hold this ceremony every year out of a duty to their memory and to the families and we love to do it, to keep this tradition alive in the future,” Hammer said.
To watch the ceremony, visit https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Community-Organization/Yukla-27-25th-Anniversary-Memorial-102836484782854/?refid=52&ref=page_internal&__tn__=*s-R.
Yukla 27 crew
First 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