FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. --
Almost 20 years to the day, Airmen from the 141st Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base will be returning to Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base, Germany to commemorate the fallen crew of ESSO 77 in a remembrance ceremony dedicated in their honor.
The ceremony will take place Jan. 14 at the memorial site on Geilenkirchen which was dedicated to the crew in 2000 and will be attended by current and former members of the 141st - to include five complete aircrews, members of the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force E-3A Component, as well as civilians and local nationals.
“This tribute exemplifies the steadfast devotion that we share together as service members,” said Colonel Greg Nolting, commander of the 141st Operations Group. “This devotion is an attribute of military service that we cherish. In remembrance, may we honor our fallen friends and their loved ones.”
On Jan. 13, 1999, Maj. David Fite, Maj. Matthew Laiho, Capt. Kenneth Thiele and Tech. Sgt. Richard Visintainer, all lost their lives when their KC-135 Stratotanker dubbed “ESSO 77” crashed near the base while conducting routine touch and go’s during a training exercise. The crew had been in Geilenkirchen for a two week training mission and were set to return to Fairchild the following day.
The tanker had just finished refueling an E-3 Sentry, an Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft commonly known as AWACS, over the North Sea and began its return to Geilenkirchen. The weather had been clear that day and the crew informed the air traffic control tower that they were aborting their attempted landing and were going to go around again. That would be their last call to the tower.
According to Brig. Gen. Klaus-Peter Stieglitz, the E-3A Component commander at the time of the accident, the aircraft went airborne at an unusually steep angle, lost speed and crashed in a wooded area just north of the runway.
The crash was the single worst incident resulting in the loss of life for the unit since its formation in 1924 and it was the only fatal accident to occur with a KC-135 since the 141st began aerial refueling in 1976.
An investigation following the crash determined that a fault in the horizontal stabilizer trim, which is a piece of equipment on the aircraft’s tail that provides stability and control for the aircraft, was the cause of the accident. The Department of Defense temporarily grounded all KC-135s following the accident to conduct inspections on all stabilizers.
The accident devastated many within Team Fairchild as well as members of Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base and community.
“The aircraft accident and loss of our friends was life impacting,” said Nolting. “You never truly recover from a loss of this magnitude as they were our squadron mates, mentors, and friends that we shared memories with flying around the globe. The most difficult part to cope with is the thought of the pain their families went through. I think of them often.”
In addition, a ceremony is scheduled to take place Jan. 13 at 1130, with a flag lowering at 1140 at the F-102 Delta Dagger memorial on Patriot Boulevard on Fairchild AFB.