According to the Nebraska-based Omaha World-Herald newspaper, a June 16th EF1 tornado that struck Offutt Air Force Base damaged 10 aircraft, including two E4-B Nightwatch airplanes. The E-4B is popularly known as the “Doomsday” plane because of its role in a potential nuclear war. The Air Force has four in its inventory, such that half of its fleet was disabled in the storm.
The twister also damaged eight RC-125 surveillance aircraft belonging to the 55th Wing’s fleet of 29 such aircraft. The RC-125s fly surveillance missions over the Middle East, western Pacific, and Far East. They act essentially as airborne listening posts. A 55th Wing spokesman told the World-Herald that seven of the RC-125s sustained only minor damage, and that six of those were already repaired and returned to ready status.
The tornado hit the base — also home to the U.S. Strategic Command — just after 8 p.m. on June 16th and also struck a base housing area and an Air Force golf course before jumping the highway and striking the aircraft south of the runway. The National Weather Service stated that winds reached up to 110 mph. Offutt AFB is located in the vicinity of Omaha, Nebraska.
The damaged planes were located in hangars when the tornado struck, though their tails were exposed to the high winds, according to the news report. While reporters could see some of the damage done to the tails, the Air Force did not allow any photographs to be taken of the damaged planes.
While more RC-125s were damaged in the storm, the hit to the fleet’s E-4Bs was considered more critical, given their small number and critical mission. The planes and their crew are dedicated to insuring the sustainment of national communications in the event of a nuclear war, thus earning them their popular nickname.
The E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Posts were built in the 1970s and would serve as the National Airborne Operations Center for the President and the National Command Authority in the event of a crippling of national communications networks. The planes are also sometimes used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during disasters, and to carry the Secretary of Defense on some overseas trips.
The E-4Bs belong to the 1st Airborne Command and Control Squadron of the 595th Command and Control Group, which is under the Global Strike Command based out of Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. One former member of the command told the press that there are contingency plans in place in case of a catastrophic hit to the fleet of E-4Bs. Essentially, other unspecified aircraft would take over the mission of continuing the nation’s strategic communications in such a worst-case scenario.
Additionally, according to reports, a “cocked” or “on-alert” E-4B was historically manned 24 hours per day with a watch crew on board. Its job was to monitor all communications systems awaiting a launch order, and the aircraft used to be stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, to be close to national leaders. Whether that type of stand-by posture is still employed today is unclear, though reportedly at least one E-4B is kept on alert at all times. Its location is not publicly known.
(Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia).