RC-135 Reconnaissance Aircraft Return to Offutt as Flood Recovery Continues

Airmen launch an RC-135 Rivet Joint in response to threats of flooding near  Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, on March 16, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Rachelle Blake)
Airmen launch an RC-135 Rivet Joint in response to threats of flooding near Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, on March 16, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Rachelle Blake)

An undisclosed number of RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft have returned to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, after floodwaters submerged part of the base this month.

"Some of our aircraft have returned and have begun training," Drew Nystrom, spokesman for the 55th Wing, said Friday.

For operational security reasons, he could not say how many aircraft had returned, but added that onlookers will see RC-135s conducting routine training.

There are normally 10 to 15 RC-135s stationed at Offutt.

Offutt officials flew a number of aircraft to other bases as levees from the Missouri River and Papillion Creek broke March 15. Eight RC-135 Rivet Joints were relocated, half to Nebraska's Lincoln Air National Guard Base, and the rest to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

One of Global Strike Command's E-4B Nightwatch aircraft, more commonly known as the "Doomsday" plane, was also relocated during the flood. Citing OpSec, Global Strike has not revealed where the aircraft -- which operates as the National Airborne Operations Center -- was sent or whether it has returned to Offutt. Aircraft spotters observed three different E4-Bs flying between Texas and Ohio this week; the Air Force has four in its inventory.

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In recent days, engineers and emergency crews gave Offutt's flight line a "clean bill of health," Nystrom said. Roughly 3,000 feet of the runway had been submerged during the flood.

"It's safe to operate from," he said.

Structure assessment and repair continues and, while there is still some standing water in the southeastern part of the base, it's minimal compared to the six to eight feet of water in some buildings at the height of the flood, Nystrom said.

More than 3,000 airmen and civilians "were displaced from their work centers and 1.2 million square feet of office space was under water," according to a recent news release.

The 55th Wing and "all tenant units have remained fully mission capable even as we were dispersed," Nystrom said.

On Wednesday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright visited the base to speak with leaders and airmen about the recovery process.

"I am so proud of the members of Team Offutt who worked tirelessly for days to protect as many assets as possible. I would be remiss if I didn't also thank the local community. It is those strong partnerships that made all of this possible," Goldfein said in the release.

"Our folks continue to deliver our capabilities downrange, and we didn't miss one single tasking" overseas, Nystrom said. There are 46 aircraft assigned to the wing, including those that are geographically separated from Offutt.

"We flew missions for five different combatant commanders [the same] weekend while we were dealing with this," he said. "We continued to deliver as we were battling this disaster at home. We're used to … the expeditionary mindset" with the RC-135 mission.

This week, Air Force officials said they estimate the service will need $1.2 billion in fiscal 2019 and another $3.7 billion spread over fiscal 2020 and 2021 to make repairs at Offutt and Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, which sustained major damages during Hurricane Michael last year.

Without that funding, adjustments will have to be made, some of which pose a risk to readiness recovery, the service said in a press release.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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