"Don't Mess With the Geese!"

By Major Van Harl USAF Ret.

I was the operations officer for the Security Police Squadron at Elmemdorf AFB, Alaska, a couple of years prior to the loss of an AWACS aircraft and crew. I was trying to deal with what caused the crash, long before the Canadian geese won. I was not a member of the BASH committee that met regularly to address the "bird" question, but I attended some of the meetings because it fell to my "cops" to try and deal with the birds on a daily basis. The birds were the problem, but the State of Alaska and the Federal wildlife enforcement officials were also part of this equation. In Alaska the wildlife officers are State Troopers, with all the powers that implies.

We tried to get help but were told to leave the birds alone. We even went so far as to shoot the geese legally during hunting season. We were told to stop because we airmen just wanted to get rid of the geese and were not hunting for food and sport.

When word was received about Troopers possibly arresting airmen for illegally hunting the geese, even though the wing wanted us to shoot the birds, you were hard pressed to find anyone willing to continue goose hunting on base. I got so tired of it I stopped attending the BASH committee meetings.

But, the "cops" still responded whenever there were geese on the flight line. We dispatched security units with lights and sirens onto the flight line to scare off the geese.

Elmendorf AFB is the stopping off point for most military aircraft on their way to the northern Pacific. I was concerned that at some point we were going to lose an aircraft full of people. You have a lot of military stationed in Alaska, but very few have any extended family in the state. I knew that if we lost an aircraft with multiple deaths it would not only be an unnecessary tragedy, but there were going to be major logistic concerns dealing with memorials and bringing up families from the lower 48 states.

Because of that, I formed a committee called FamCAT (Family Crisis Action Team). This was a team designed to help with the care and attention needed for the many extended family members who would be coming to Elmemdorf AFB in the event of major loss of life.

The truth of the matter is that nobody (including myself) was really interested in sitting on yet another committee, so FamCAT did not progress very rapidly at first. Not until the first Gulf War started. As soon as that war broke out, I was able to get people interested. Now we were talking about combat losses. If you could not foresee bird-strike related major human losses, we in the big Air Force surely could understand air combat loss of life. So FamCAT started planning how to take care of the needs of large groups of family members.

Then the war ended and we never needed FamCAT. After leaving Alaska, I do not know what became of the FamCAT. I heard unofficially from old friends in Alaska that a lot of what FamCAT had planned to do in the event of a major loss of life was implemented.

But the crash of that E-3B Sentry should not have happened. Within hours of hearing about the crash I called a friend at the Pentagon. This person worked very close to the Chief of Staff and had been in Alaska with me. While the plane was still smoking I told my friend what I thought had happened--that the aircraft had gone down because of goose strikes--without ever examining the crash site.

My friend was skeptical about my theory and advised me I was most likely wrong. No one would intentionally allow the endangerment of aircrews because of geese and the unofficial fear of the Alaska wildlife law enforcement efforts. You will never find any official records to this effect.

Later, I saw parts of an accident report with highlighted areas spelling out almost exactly what I had known. I understand the vice-wing commander got fired and I guess that there was, and is, a lot more emphasis placed on bird issues.

But you know what? All those American and Canadian family members who made that sad trip to Anchorage probably could care less about the new and improved BASH committee. It was the damned geese, and we were afraid of them and the laws that protected them. Who protected the aircrews?

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Copyright 2005, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.