Inside the Gates: The 25th anniversary of the Alaska AWACS crash

All 24 crew members on board died after the E-3 Sentry AWACS plane struck a flock of geese
Plaques and pictures of the 24 crew members who died in the 1995 plane crash on JBER
Plaques and pictures of the 24 crew members who died in the 1995 plane crash on JBER(Scott Gross)
Published: Sep. 23, 2020 at 5:34 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) -On Sept. 22, 1995, an E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System plane flown by the 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron prepared to take off an Elmendorf runway just before 8 a.m. The plane is recognizable by its large, flat radar on top.

“The radar is kind of the unique feature of it,” Director of Operations with the 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron, Lt. Col. Clint Hammer said. “The radome sits above the fuselage there. It’s the defining characteristic of it. It just houses a large radar and other sensors we use to track aircraft and maritime assets and things like that.”

A flock of Canada geese mingled along the flight line. The plane tagged with the call sign “Yukla 27” rolled down the runway to begin a routine reconnaissance flight, and when it took flight, so did the geese. Some of them hit the plane and were sucked into the engines. Within 42 seconds, the plane and all crew members on board crashed into the birch forest below. Twenty-four crew members, including two Canadian armed forces personnel, died.

“I remember it like I remember 9/11,” Hammer said. “I know exactly where I was and what I was doing.”

Many people living in and around Anchorage at the time feel the same way. They know exactly where they were. Hammer was on his way to school.

“I was on my way to seventh grade,” Hammer said. “Driving across Birch Road on the south side of town across the hillside there and saw the smoke. It made an impact on me then, even as a young person with no connection to the military at the time.”

A lot has changed in the 25 years since the accident.

“The bird awareness and the hazards associated with flying around birds obviously wasn’t respected enough prior to Yukla 27, and after that it kind of opened everyone’s eyes to the dangers there,” Hammer said. “A lot of improvements were made in the Air Force and... across the aviation community as a whole.”

Hammer says some comfort can be taken in knowing the many lives that were saved due to the substantial changes made in the aviation community.

“Today, we gather to commemorate the 24 brave American and Canadian warriors who selflessly defended our nation’s freedom, 25 years ago,” Master Sgt. Caleb Larsen said.

Each year, family members and crew members from the squadron pay homage to the crew members who died with a ceremony at the crash site. This year and along with the 20th anniversary, two events were held: one at the memorial and a second more intimate one at the crash site. The ceremony at the memorial on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson ended with the reading of a poem written specifically for the 25th anniversary called “Magnificent Extrapolation.”

The ceremony was small due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some family members made the long trip from all parts of the lower 48. For Lt. Col. Hammer, it gives him a moment to reflect on his path to the Air Force.

“I don’t know what the odds are of someone like that as a seventh-grader,” Hammer said. “Then growing up, joining the Air Force, becoming a pilot, becoming an E-3 pilot and then being in this squadron two times and now back here in a leadership role is, it means a lot to me to be here and meet these families and go to the site with them.”

correction: A video that was attached to this story has been removed because it incorrectly stated the date of the Alaska AWACS crash.

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