Air Force shifts gears, plans full replacement for Offutt’s crumbling, 77-year-old runway

Air Force shifts gears, plans full replacement for Offutt’s crumbling, 77-year-old runway
The entire 77-year-old runway at Offutt Air Force Base will be torn up and a new surface installed. BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

The Air Force has decided to completely rebuild Offutt Air Force Base’s crumbling, 77-year-old runway instead of just patching it up one more time.

Offutt’s 55th Wing had planned to begin a reconstruction project later this year that would replace about one-fourth of the runway that was in the worst condition, at a cost of nearly $100 million.

Instead, the entire 11,700-foot airstrip will be torn up and a new surface installed, said members of the congressional delegation who were briefed on the plans Tuesday.

Lt. Col. Vance Goodfellow, deputy commander of the 55th Mission Support Group put the revised cost of the project at about $130 million, to be funded from the Air Force’s operations and maintenance budget.

“It’s going to be a full runway renovation and rebuild,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “They found the degradation was even worse than they expected.”

Offutt is the home base for 29 C-135-variant reconnaissance jets belonging to the 55th Wing as well as four E-4B Nightwatch jets capable of operating as an airborne command post in a national emergency. Those are part of the 595th Command and Control Group.

Their flight operations will move to the Lincoln Airport beginning in December while the Offutt runway is rebuilt. The Offutt runway reconstruction is scheduled to be completed in December 2020.

The price tag for the project includes $100 million for runway reconstruction, $20 million to renovate a hangar and adjacent road and apron at the Lincoln Airport, and the rest for costs associated with transporting Offutt workers to Lincoln each day.

“This is good for the community,” Goodfellow said. “We’re able to stay in Nebraska and get our folks home every night.”

Goodfellow said the rebuilt runway will have concrete touchdown areas, while the center line and shoulders will be made of asphalt. He expects future maintenance costs to be lower.

“It’s less costly when you look at the total life cycle,” he said.

The runway also will be narrowed from its original width and new lighting installed.

The rebuilt runway is expected to last for 40 years, Goodfellow said. The earlier patching project would have been good for 20 years.

He said the Air Force is still working out a lease with the Lincoln airport authority for use of its facilities. He expects construction at the Lincoln airport to begin in March or April and continue until November.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican whose 1st Congressional District includes the base, issued a statement supporting the change.

“This welcome adjustment from repairing the existing runway to a complete replacement with a modern design and materials will improve the 55th Wing’s mission effectiveness and provide taxpayers with extended cost-savings in operations and maintenance for decades to come,” he said.

Offutt’s lone runway was built in 1941 and opened just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Though there have been numerous patches, and major runway renovations in 1983, 1995 and 2006, much of the original concrete still remains. More than half of the runway is at least 40 years old, Offutt officials said.

In 2015, the 55th Wing’s Virginia-based parent command, the Air Combat Command, began raising alarms about the poor condition of the runway. Officials at the time said 26 percent of the runway was at high risk for failure, even though crews spent about 400 hours a year maintaining it.

“Offutt’s runway is the worst of any in the Air Combat Command,” Col. Matt Joganich, then commander of the 55th Mission Support Group, said at the time. “It’s been Band-Aided over the years. At some point, it has to be replaced.”

Those concerns prompted Nebraska’s congressional delegation to make runway improvements at Offutt one of their highest priorities.

“Hopefully it’s going to make it a more attractive base (to the Air Force),” Fischer said.