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30 years since tragic plane crash

Shown is a Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, similar to one that crashed in Abilene, Texas, in 1989 and killed 19 people, 17 of them from Sawyer. (Public domain image)

The front page of The Mining Journal on Feb. 1, 1989 had shocking photos of a plane crash, one with smoke still billowing from the wreckage. The headline read “Tanker crash kills 19.” Although the crash happened in Abilene, Texas, the other headline explained why it was front page news in Marquette, “Dead include 17 of Sawyer.”

The KC-135 Stratotanker had left Sawyer Jan. 30 on its way to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, and then to Guam, where it was planning to participate in airborne refueling exercises. There was a stopover that night at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene for crew rest and routine maintenance.

Unfortunately, with a heavy load of fuel — enough not only for the flight to Hawaii but also for a refueling exercise en route –the plane was just a few feet off the ground when the left wing hit the ground, causing the plane to fall, plow through a fence and burst into flames. The fire continued for more than an hour.

The final crash report noted that a precipitating cause was probably a problem with the water injection system used to provide additional thrust during take-off, and noted that on at least eight occasions prior to the crash, problems had been reported with that system.

The tragedy reverberated throughout the area. The victims included not just the seven crew members and four other active duty personnel, but also retired military members and dependents, traveling to Hawaii on the Air Force “space available” program.

These included a Gwinn couple, Margaret and Berlin “Woody” Wooldridge, and their 4 year old grandson, Jordan, who were traveling to Hawaii for a vacation. The Wooldridges had been stationed at Sawyer at the end of Master Sgt. Woolridge’s career and, like so many others, had fallen in love with all the U.P. had to offer and so had stayed in the area after retirement. The Abilene Reporter-News quoted Jordan’s uncle saying that Jordan had been so excited about the vacation that he’d been wearing flip flops and his Hawaiian shirt for a week before the trip.

Three children in the McDonald Elementary School at Sawyer lost their fathers –first- and third-graders Brynn and Robert Llewellyn, and kindergartener Holly Vickers. Brynn and Robert’s father, Robert “Dusty” Llewellyn, was the plane’s captain. The plane’s co-pilot, Ken Brackney, also left two small children. He and his wife Bethann had just moved to a 25-acre woodlot in Skandia, where the weekend before the crash they’d been skating with friends on their frozen pond.

Another victim with deep U.P. ties was Robert W. Curtis, who’d grown up in Hancock, had degrees from both Michigan Technological University and Northern Michigan University, taught both in the Hancock schools and at Tech, and had most recently retired from a position as a professor of engineering technology at Lake Superior State University. His military career began during World War II when he was stationed as a weatherman at the mouth of the Amazon River, providing weather forecasts for the British bombers flying from the Azores. After the war he joined the Air Force Reserves, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. When he retired from LSSU he vowed to spend half of each year traveling, usually using the Air Force “space available” program. He traveled around the world three times, and on one trip managed to visit 30 different countries.

When the available flight was out of Marquette, he often drove over from the Soo the day before, spending the night with his nephew Norm Gruber and his family in Marquette. He had done that the night before the flight that was involved in the fatal crash. Gruber recalls that when he first read about the crash it didn’t occur to him to be alarmed because he knew his uncle had left the day before — not realizing that the flight had stopped overnight in Texas. It wasn’t until he got a call from his cousin a day later that he realized his uncle was one of the victims. (You may recognize from the name that Norm Gruber is the father of Beth Gruber, the John tM. Longyear Library research librarian)

So many squadrons were involved at Sawyer that there were three separate memorial services in the base chapel, with as many as 400 people attending each one. In Marquette a committee of clergy and residents organized a public memorial service at St. Peter Cathedral on Feb. 10. Businesses flew their flags at half-staff on the day of the service.

Unfortunately, the attempt at a more lasting memorial has not fared well. A boulder with two memorial plaques naming the 10 airmen from crew E180 who died in the crash was placed at Sawyer surrounded by 10 red maple trees. Although one of the plaques refers to the “enduring maple trees,” most of them have died and the area around the boulder fell into disrepair after the air base was closed. According to Bob Vick, the director of the K.I. Sawyer Heritage Museum, the fundraising effort to restore the memorial has not gained the support it needs. The museum still hopes to make some essential repairs this spring.

The John M. Longyear Research Library at the Marquette Regional History Center has more information about the accident and about Sawyer AFB.