In the four years since deep floodwaters inundated their hangar and headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, the crews that fly and maintain the fleet of four E-4B Nightwatch airborne command-and-control jets have spent much of their time working outdoors and away from their home station. Now the 595th Command and Control Group is back home in its newly refurbished hangar, the Allman Maintenance Facility, near the south end of the Offutt runway. The two-year project cost $27 million.
It’s especially welcome news for the group’s wrench-turners from the 595th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. The hangar lacked plumbing or hot water for a long stretch after the flood. And they had no indoor workspace at all during an 18-month sojourn at the Lincoln Airport during 2021 and 2022, while Offutt’s airfield was closed for runway reconstruction — two cold Nebraska winters and two hot summers.
“Our guys did a fantastic job of adapting while we were operating out of Lincoln,” said Capt. Heyden Patterson, the squadron’s assistant officer-in-charge. “They’ve gotten a feeling of being back home, where they belong.”
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The unit held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in February following the completion of the last part of the project, the $5.6 million repair of the hangar floor. The concrete and underlying foundation had been damaged while it lay under water after the great flood of March 2019.
The hangar reopened just in time for the regular nose-to-tail inspection of one of the four jets, which are military variants of the Boeing 747 — one of the largest jets ever made.
“The timing of the hangar opening up was just perfect, with when our next inspection was due,” Lt. Col. Ted DeBonis, the maintenance squadron commander, said during a tour of the facility last week.
The E-4B, colloquially called the “Doomsday jet,” could hardly play a more critical role. Their crew’s main job is to carry on with military command-and-control in the event that ground-based facilities such as the Pentagon and U.S. Strategic Command headquarters at Offutt are wiped out in a nuclear strike. One jet is on alert at all times.
The 595th Group has been through plenty of trials since the unit was stood up in October 2016, uniting several squadrons under the Louisiana-based Eighth Air Force and Global Strike Command.
Less than a year later, a tornado struck the Offutt flight line, including the Allman facility, causing $8.3 million worth of damage to two E-4Bs that had been parked partially in the hangar with only their tails exposed to the storm.
The slow-motion disaster of the 2019 flood inflicted even more pain. Tech. Sgt. Julia Moore, who had been with the maintenance squadron for just a few months when the flood hit, recalled hearing warnings about the rising water. But no one could quite believe that the Missouri River, visible from the roof a mile away, posed a threat.
Then the water breached the levees protecting Offutt. The lower part of the base began to fill up like a wash basin, with 720 million gallons of water.
“The next few days it was just absolute chaos, trying to get things moved up the hill,” Moore said.
She drove a vehicle that slowly towed one of the giant planes to higher ground.
“We pulled the plane up the hill two hours ahead of the floodwaters,” Moore said. “They said, ‘No pressure, but the flood’s right behind you.’ ”
Even after the water receded, most of the 595th’s personnel scattered to makeshift office space on the upper part of the base. The hangar itself was usable, but there were no toilets or running water because of damage to pumping stations.
“We were able to use the hangar for some heavy maintenance, but the offices were condemned,” DeBonis said.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of the group’s 600 members to work from home. And a year later, the runway closure forced the move of flight operations to Lincoln, an hour away.
But there was no hangar there big enough for the E-4B. The move also meant maintenance crews worked four-day stretches of temporary duty there, staying in hotels and eating in restaurants. For the 30-day inspections that had to be conducted indoors, the 595th flew planes and maintenance crews to airfields in Arkansas, Ohio or California.
Besides taking airmen away from their families, sending crew members to remote locations was expensive. DeBonis said the unit spent $6 million on temporary duty allowances during the runway closure.
The renovation of the Allman facility took place in earnest while the unit was away. The offices were fully renovated by the time members returned last October, but the hangar itself remained under repair through January.
Workers dug a trench 25-30 feet wide and 3 feet deep and poured new concrete along the spine of the hangar, where the big planes park. It has to be strong because of the heavy load it bears.
Moore compared the feeling of being home again to enjoying a treat after a long period of going without.
“Like when you’re on a diet for a few days, and you get a big piece of chocolate cake,” she said.
DeBonis said many of his young airmen are new to the Air Force. Until now, they haven’t known the feeling of having a true home base. Nor has he, since taking over the leadership of the maintenance squadron.
“From the start of my command, I haven’t had a hangar,” he said. “It’s nice to have a home.”