Rhonda Fullerton will be up at 5 Saturday morning and at Lincoln Airport by 6 to make sure everything is in place to welcome the first Special Olympics athletes off the plane at 7:30.

Fullerton, corporate and community affairs manager for Cessna Aircraft Co., has been putting in long days for two years as the person in charge of the operation that will bring in more than 800 athletes on 165 planes from 28 states for the national games that start Sunday. Private Cessna Citations will be taking off from and landing in Lincoln from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Fullerton has organized hundreds of volunteers on the ground and rounded up gallons upon gallons of fuel, thousands of snacks and, of course, the planes and athletes that will make up one of the larger peacetime airlifts in U.S. history.

"There's a lot of people working together on this," she said.

Fullerton started planning for the 2010 Cessna Citation Special Olympics Airlift in summer 2008, and agencies and organizations, including the Federal Aviation Administration, Lincoln Airport Authority, Duncan Aviation and many more have been in the fold since.

The goal was to make the airlift the biggest ever -- 325 planes, 2,000 athletes. But just after Cessna announced its plan, the economy crashed.

"The further we got into the planning process, we realized that wouldn't be attainable," Fullerton said. "At that point we looked at it as however many planes we get is helping that many more athletes get to the games."

Nonetheless, the airlift could be one of the most trafficked events in Nebraska history, according to the FAA. It will even bring in a mobile tower to manage increased traffic.

In addition to the airlift, the airport will deal with regularly scheduled commercial flights into and out of Lincoln.

Amy Francis, Lincoln air traffic control tower manager, compared the traffic to the number of planes that came in from California for the Nebraska-USC game -- but bigger.

Mark Grant, radar control manager at Eppley Airfield in Omaha, said twice as many private jets will fly in for the airlift as the 75 that come for annual Berkshire Hathaway meetings.

The FAA has doubled its staff for the event -- 47 air traffic controllers and technical assistants will work the airlift in Lincoln and in Omaha because the planes will cross air space there.

"We've planned for two years, but the controllers and the technicians are the ones that are going to make this work," Francis said. "They've embraced the challenge and are eager to help add to these games."

* * *

There will be much fanfare as the first athlete steps onto the tarmac about 7:30 a.m. to a throng of greeters, huggers and a welcome ceremony at Duncan Aviation.

Some athletes will be flying for the first time, let alone in a private plane. The games are the focus of the week, but the plane ride will be a highlight.

"The best part of it is just getting to see the athletes," Fullerton said. "Enthusiasm spreads through the whole place when the athletes come off the planes.

"Even after a long, long day, the enthusiasm is still high for the last plane."

Said veteran airlift pilot Terry Stent of Atlanta: "The emotions caught me off guard, the connection you make with the five or six athletes you fly.

"You think you are involved in just a small way by providing transportation, but you immediately become a member of their group."

That's why he signed up in October. It'll be his fifth airlift.

"Every time Cessna announces they are accepting volunteers, I jump on it. It's an enormous amount of fun and provides an enormous reward. It's a no-brainer."

* * *

Cessna, headquartered in Wichita, Kan., has been doing the airlift for 25 years.

In 1985, two Citations flew Kansas Special Olympics athletes to Salt Lake City for the Winter World Games. The pilots' experience led Russ Meyer, then chairman of Cessna, to hatch the idea of an airlift, and in 1987, 132 Cessna Citations flew 1,000 athletes and coaches to the International Summer Games in South Bend, Ind.

This year, companies including Duncan Aviation, Nelnet, Garmin, the Arizona Cardinals and Coca-Cola donated planes, pilots and fuel.

Hundreds of volunteers from Cessna, Duncan and Silverhawk Aviation will donate time and skills to refuel, service and move planes.

Hundreds more will greet the athletes.

* * *

Four years ago, a line of Citations stretched across the sky from Des Moines, Iowa, to the East Coast for the 2006 Special Olympics Games.

Even with the stress of landing 235 Citations in a few hours, the atmosphere inside the mobile control tower was anything but tense.

"There's an excitement for the challenge," said Ed Carroll, deputy manager for the Des Moines airport tower. "There's a can-do attitude."

The Lincoln airport will be as busy Saturday as any large airport in America, said Jon Croft, district manager for the FAA.

The weather looks ideal, but if high winds or severe weather pops up, the FAA has a contingency plan.

"You need to be prepared for anything," Croft said. "In this situation, one mistake multiplies and backs up the whole system."

They'll have to be prepared to do it all over again July 24, when athletes head home.

"This will be a historic event for their facility and for Lincoln," Carroll said.

Spectators are encouraged to go out to the airport to watch the full skies.

"Just look up and see," Francis said.

Reach Jordan Pascale at 402-473-7120 or jpascale@journalstar.com.

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