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Air Force Says Geese Caused AWACS Plane Crash; Controller Faulted

January 12, 1996

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ A flock of geese caused the crash of an AWACS radar plane that killed 24 last year, the Air Force said Thursday in a report that faulted inaction by airfield managers and a controller.

The Canada geese flew in front of the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control Systems jet just as it took off and knocked out its two left engines, putting the jet in a slow left turn from which it never recovered, the crash investigation found.

Geese had been suspected from the start. Investigators found the remains of nearly three dozen on the runway after the Sept. 22 crash, and the threat of birds on the runways was common at Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Just before the AWACS began its takeoff roll, the senior air traffic controller in the tower spotted the geese but didn’t tell the AWACS crew, said Col. Thomas Gresch, the crash’s lead investigator.

Geese also had been spotted in the area two minutes earlier, when a C-130 cargo plane took off, he said.

That mistake, and the base’s failure to consistently keep geese from roosting on the runway infield, contributed to the accident, Gresch said.

The Air Force says its planes hit birds about 3,000 times a year and that the strikes cause $50 million in damage. But at Elmendorf only one plane had been damaged in the past five years before the AWACS disaster.

The crash, which killed all the crew members on board, was the first crash ever of an AWACS plane.

Just two months earlier, an Air Force inspection team had approved a plan to control geese, but airfield managers didn’t follow that plan closely enough, Gresch said.

For instance, they could have told airfield workers to check the runways more frequently, use spotlights at night or install the sound cannons many commercial airports use to keep birds from nesting.

Since the accident, the base bought eight air cannons and borrowed others from Fort Richardson, a nearby Army base. The Air Force also hired 17 people who will be assigned to bird watching duties during the migratory season.

The senior air traffic controller, Master Sgt. John Edwin Leis, did not respond to calls to his home and the base about the report.

Elmendorf’s commander, Lt. Gen. Lawrence Boese, said he would decide in several weeks what penalties to recommend for those responsible.

Four members of the Air Force, including Leis, invoked their right to refuse to testify to avoid self-incrimination, Gresch said.

Gresch and an AWACS instructor staged four re-enactments in a simulator and concluded: ``The air crew did everything humanly possible to fly this aircraft out of an unflyable situation.″

The last few seconds of conversation captured by the cockpit voice recorder portray a crew struggling to keep the plane aloft and lighten it by dumping fuel to prepare for an emergency landing.

The crew knew it had struck a flock of geese and lost two engines almost immediately after takeoff, but couldn’t pull the plane out of a slow left turn or gain enough airspeed to control the plane. It got about 270 feet off the ground before crashing.

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