A heavy storm packing driving rain, high winds, and two tornadoes ripped through the US Air Force’s Offutt base in Nebraska last weekend. The extent of the damage to the facility was reported by local media on Saturday.
Ten aircraft, including the two E-4B Nightwatchers, were damaged by the tornado, said Air Force Captain Mark Graff, as cited by Stars and Stripes.
NBC reported that the two E-4Bs – half of the fleet of four – were grounded by the tornado.
Air Force spokesman Colonel Pat Ryder said the tornado was fast-moving, but the base personnel “attempted to hangar as many [planes] as they could,” adding that “obviously some were damaged.”
Ryder said the primary E-4B, an aircraft in a state of permanent readiness for takeoff in case of emergency, was not affected. Initially, there were few details on the nature of the damage to the two E-4Bs.
The Air Force spokesman later told AFP, “two E-4B National Airborne Operations Center aircraft stationed at Offutt AFB received storm damage.”
Other aircraft at Offutt, said to be RC-135 reconnaissance planes, sustained only minor damage, and six have already been repaired and returned to “mission-capable” shape, 55th Air Force Wing spokesman Drew Nystrom told the Omaha World Herald.
Air Force inspectors have not yet determined the cost of the repairs, Nystrom said.
“[The] 55th Wing’s combat capability was not affected by the storm,” he said, adding “we have and will continue to meet any and all higher-headquarters requirements.”
The E-4Bs, commonly known as “Doomsday Planes,” are designed to serve as aerial command centers for the US president and top officials, including the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the case of a nuclear war or other national emergency.
While not technically classified, the aircraft are rarely mentioned in the media. Designed in the middle of the Cold War, the E-4Bs are full-fledged war rooms, capable of transporting dozens of military commanders, as well as communications and maintenance staff.
The E-4B is built on a Boeing 747-200 airframe reinforced to protect it against the electromagnetic shockwave of a nuclear blast and also shield it from a thermal blast.
The planes also feature a five-mile-long trailing wire antenna that would allow the commander-in-chief to maintain contact with nuclear-capable submarines even if ground-based communications were destroyed.
Aircraft fitted for similar purposes are in use by the Russian Air Force. The Ilyushin Il-80, built upon a modified Il-86 widebody airliner, is meant to be used as an airborne command center for Russia’s leadership, including the president, in the event of an all-out nuclear war.