More than 200 airmen and family members gathered Saturday morning at Fairchild Air Force Base’s Memorial Grove Park for the dedication of a memorial honoring the three airmen killed in a KC-135 Stratotanker explosion in the sky over Kyrgyzstan exactly one year ago.
The memorial features a 5-foot granite pillar engraved with a tanker airplane and “Shell 77,” the plane’s call sign. Arranged around it in a half-circle are three small benches engraved with the names of those who died: Capt. Mark “Tyler” Voss, of Boerne, Texas; Capt. Victoria “Tory” Pinckney, of Colorado Springs, Colorado; and TSgt. Herman “Tre” Mackey III, of Bakersfield, California.
Before a KC-135 roared overhead to mark the beginning of the ceremony, young Gabriel Pinckney couldn’t be kept away from the memorial. The 19-month-old clutched a blanket as he explored his mother’s memorial, prompting a family member to chase after him.
Col. Brian Newberry, commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, vowed never to forget the three airmen. “Fairchild lost three mighty warriors,” he said. “This simple memorial before us will show future generations that American airmen are always undaunted.”
Newberry referred to Voss as “a pilot’s pilot.” “He knew how to fly,” Newberry said. He also recalled how Pinckney fought to get time on the simulator while she was pregnant with her son. “Tory was smart,” he said. “She taught me the ropes in Manas.”
Mackey’s dedication also made an impact on Newberry. “Tre spoke to me about the love of flight and the love of family,” he said.
The granite memorial shows the strength of the crew of Shell 77, Newberry said. “This crew never quit fighting a crippled jet,” he said. “They never gave up.”
Newberry referred to new checklists and simulator modifications that resulted from the accident. An investigation completed in March showed that the tanker went into a “Dutch roll” where the nose moves from left to right while the wings go up and down. The stress from the increasingly violent Dutch roll caused the tail to fall off. The plane then went into a steep nosedive and the right wing was ripped off. Fuel spilling from the wing tank ignited and caused the explosion.
“They gave their tomorrows so we can have our todays,” Newberry said. “Shell 77, we will never forget you.”
After the ceremony, family members were invited to examine and touch the memorial. Michelle Castro, Pinckney’s mother, clutched a bouquet of flowers as she knelt in front of her daughter’s bench, head bowed.
Soon the somber faces began to lighten as the families hugged and greeted each other. Throughout it all, young Gabriel Pinckney dashed around as toddlers do, but he kept coming back to his mother’s memorial to touch it again and again.