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Airborne command center planes now operating out of Lincoln
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Airborne command center planes now operating out of Lincoln

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E-4B aircraft and personnel take off from the Lincoln Airport.

No, Air Force One has not made Lincoln its permanent home.

The modified white Boeing 747-200s with the blue stripe down the side and "United States of America" stenciled across their bodies look very similar to the ones that ferry around the president, but they perform a different — yet equally vital — role.

"We get mistaken a lot for Air Force One," said Lt. Col. Derek Ligon, deputy commander of the 595th Command and Control Group. "It's what's inside the aircraft that's essentially different."

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The E-4B planes, as they are called, operate as airborne command centers, ensuring the U.S. military can keep operations and the chain of command alive if the United States were to come under a nuclear attack.

The four E-4B planes will be based in Lincoln for the next 18 months as part of the $150 million Offutt Air Force Base runway reconstruction project. They join OC-135, RC-135 and WC-135 planes that do intelligence, reconnaissance and electronic-attack missions.

Those planes are part of the Air Force's 55th Wing, which is headquartered at Offutt. The E-4B planes are part of the 595th Command and Control Group, which is part of the Global Strike Command based at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

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Ligon said the Lincoln Airport is ideally suited to hosting the planes, which can carry 300,000 pounds of fuel and weigh as much as 800,000 pounds total.

He said it's "unusual" for a commercial airport to have sturdy-enough pavement and long-enough runways to support the heavy planes.

"That's why Lincoln is good, because it can support that," Ligon said.

While 2006-2007 is the last time Offutt planes made the Lincoln Airport a temporary home due to runway work, the E-4B planes did a short stint in Lincoln in the spring of 2019 after widespread flooding left part of the Bellevue base underwater, including their hangar.

Ligon said the planes flew out of Lincoln for two to three months then while the Air Force waited for floodwaters to recede and made repairs to facilities.

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"You could say it was kind of a practice" for the current relocation, he said.

The planes have a normal crew of about 70 people, which includes the pilots, security staff and battle staff, but can accommodate as many as 112 passengers.

Those crew members are commuting daily from the Omaha area to Lincoln.

There also are several dozen ground crew staff, whom Ligon said are referred to as "maintainers." They typically do rotations of one to two weeks where they will stay in Lincoln.

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Nick Cusick, chairman of the Lincoln Airport Authority, said the timing of the relocation worked out very well because commercial flight numbers have declined at the airport due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's not like they're fighting for runway time," he said.

Cusick said it's not clear whether the relocation will have much of an economic effect on Lincoln, but it is providing a long-term boost to some of the airport's facilities, which the Air Force spent nearly $40 million to upgrade.

What's more important, however, is the Lincoln Airport having the capability and the willingness to accommodate the Air Force planes, he said.

"I think for me the biggest thing is being able to partner with the military and with Offutt," Cusick said.

Ligon said the Airport Authority, the city of Lincoln and the state have all been great partners in working to accommodate the relocation, which has been in the works since 2014.

He said he and most of the members of the Air Force joined because they wanted an adventure. While they may fly all over the world, many never venture much beyond the Omaha area and see other parts of Nebraska.

Coming to Lincoln, Ligon said, "is an opportunity to see another part of Nebraska for a year and a half, and it's another adventure."

PHOTOS: OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE THROUGH THE YEARS

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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