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An RC-135V/W Rivet Joint aircraft leaves the runway Aug. 13, 2015, at Offutt AFB, Neb. The planes have been operating out of Lincoln, Nebraska, for the past 18 months, while a $168.9 million runway reconstruction project was underway.

An RC-135V/W Rivet Joint aircraft leaves the runway Aug. 13, 2015, at Offutt AFB, Neb. The planes have been operating out of Lincoln, Nebraska, for the past 18 months, while a $168.9 million runway reconstruction project was underway. (Joshua Plueger/U.S. Air Force)

LINCOLN, Neb. (Tribune News Service) — Offutt Air Force Base planes are getting ready to depart the Lincoln Airport for good.

The base’s $168.9 million runway reconstruction project is wrapping up, and the strip is set to reopen on Friday.

That means the huge RC-135 reconnaissance jets and E-4B command and control aircraft that have been seen over Lincoln for the past year and a half will return to the base in Bellevue. Most will leave Friday, with a few flying out in the following days.

Offutt is planning a ribbon cutting and other ceremonies on Friday to mark the planes’ return. The events are open only to military members and their families.

Officially, planes from the 55th Wing have been stationed at the Lincoln Airport for 18 months while the Offutt runway was rebuilt.

But Offutt planes started using the airport as early as February 2021, meaning they’ve been flying in and out of the Capital City for nearly 20 months.

“It’s been nice to have such a great airfield just down the road,” said Maj. Brian Ross, director of the 55th Wing’s runway program management office.

As many as 18 planes were based in Lincoln at any one time, and they flew more than 1,800 missions that totaled about 9,000 hours of flying, Ross said.

There were a few base employees stationed in Lincoln full time, but most personnel — about 750 people — were bused back and forth between the airport and Bellevue.

That resulted in more than 19,000 bus trips totaling more than 1.2 million miles, at a cost of about $17 million.

Ross said the commute, “obviously took a toll on our airmen,” but it was better than the alternative.

Among the options the Air Force considered was temporarily relocating the wing to Grand Forks, North Dakota, Ross said.

That would have meant rotating airmen in and out every two to three months, requiring spending large chunks of time away from their families.

“It would have pretty much been like a deployment,” Ross said.

In addition to the workers and planes, the Air Force also brought about 25 million pounds of equipment to Lincoln and it made about $30 million worth of improvements at the airport, including renovating a World War II-era hangar, building a temporary hangar and making pavement upgrades to the airport’s west ramp.

Those improvements “won’t go unused” and will continue to serve an aeronautical purpose, said David Haring, executive director of the Lincoln Airport.

Haring said that while there were some initial growing pains on both sides in the early months of the arrangement, the overall integration of the Offutt planes into normal airport operations was “seamless.”

“There have been really no issues, no hiccups,” he said. “They’ve been great to work with.”

The only major change now that the planes are leaving is that the airport’s control tower, which had gone to a 24-hour operation to accommodate the Air Force’s schedule, will return to its normal hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Haring said.

“It’s been great to have them here,” Haring said, and not just for the revenue it brought the airport.

Haring said the planes drew a lot of interest from residents of Lincoln, and Offutt officials went out of their way to be as transparent as possible and to show off what they were doing.

“I think it’s been great for the public just to have that opportunity to see the size and scope of the operation,” Haring said.

Ross, for his part, said things went as well as the Air Force could have expected, and it’s all due to the cooperation and coordination with the airport.

“We’re grateful for all the support,” he said. “It’s been a true team effort.”

(c)2022 Lincoln Journal Star, Neb.

Visit Lincoln Journal Star, Neb. at www.journalstar.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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