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Reconnaissance jets moved to MacDill from base in Nebraska as snowmelt floods Midwest

An aerial view of Offutt Air Force Base and surrounding areas near Omaha, Neb., shows the affect of flood waters from rising rivers. [U.S. Air Force/TSgt. Rachelle Blake]
An aerial view of Offutt Air Force Base and surrounding areas near Omaha, Neb., shows the affect of flood waters from rising rivers. [U.S. Air Force/TSgt. Rachelle Blake]
Published Mar. 21, 2019

TAMPA — Five Air Force reconnaissance jets and about 100 personnel from Nebraska have been moved to MacDill Air Force Base because of severe flooding from a record snowfall that's melting across Midwestern states.

The RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft from the 55th Wing were evacuated during the weekend from Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha. The Missouri River overran its banks and covered about a third of Offutt's flight line to depths of about six feet, said Col. Dave Norton, the wing's mission-support group commander.

Nearly a third of the base was underwater, in some cases as deep as 16 feet, Norton said.

MacDill is one of 10 bases nationwide where the RC-135s and personnel from Offutt were dispersed. It was unclear Thursday how long it would be before the aircraft and personnel return to Offutt, said Andrew Nystrom, a spokesman for the 55th Wing, the base host unit.

There are no current plans to fly training sorties at MacDill, Nystrom said.

The RC-135s will look familiar to MacDill personnel and local aviation enthusiasts: The aircraft was developed from the same four-engine Boeing jet as the KC-135 Stratotanker refueling planes that are assigned to the Tampa base.

The RC-135 jets, which first began flying in 1964, typically have three pilots, two navigators and mission flight crews ranging from 21 to 27 — at a minimum, three electronic warfare officers, 14 intelligence operators and four in-flight maintenance technicians.

Restoring Offutt to full operations is expected to take months and tens of millions of dollars.

A key consideration will be the condition of the 11,000 foot runway. It's dry now, but crews are removing debris washed in by the floodwaters and experts must make sure it can bear the weight of aircraft again.

If so, flying operations could be restored within weeks, Norton said. If extensive repairs are needed, it could take longer.

Offutt is the training base for the 55th Wing's 29 reconnaissance jets and four E-4B Nightwatch airborne command-and-control aircraft. The Nebraska base also hosts U.S. Strategic Command, one of 10 major military headquarters known as combatant commands.

Two of the combatant commands, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, are located at MacDill.

Neither StratCom nor base housing were damaged in the floods because they're at higher elevations, Norton said.

Crews at Offutt — like people across Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin — have been struggling to deal with rising waters from rain, warm temperatures and snowmelt. The base was closely monitoring fuel storage areas, mobilized a family assistance program, and canceled its scheduled June 1 Defenders of Freedom Air & Space Show.

About 80 structures, totaling more than 1.2 million square feet, were damaged by the flooding, Norton said. More than 235,000 sandbags and 460 flood barriers had been placed by Friday, according to the Offutt website.

Assistant metro editor Dennis Joyce contributed to this report. Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com. Follow @haltman.