ABOARD THE NATIONAL AIRBORNE OPERATIONS CENTER — Welcome to the Pentagon in the sky.
The E4-B is officially the National Airborne Operations Center, but the highly modified version of a Boeing 747-200 series is more popularly known as the “doomsday plane.”
That's because it is designed to survive an apocalyptic event, such as full-scale nuclear war.
It enables the president, defense secretary or Joint Chiefs of Staff to coordinate U.S. military responses even if there is devastation on the ground 30,000 feet below.
It's also the plane Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel uses for overseas travel.
Col. Joseph Douez of Papillion, NAOC commander, describes the plane as “the most capable communications platform in the world.”
Indeed, there are phones throughout the plane and a room where the secretary can participate in secure video teleconferences.
A thin, five-mile-long antenna can be deployed from the rear to allow communication with ballistic submarines thousands of miles away.
Hagel feels particularly at home on the aircraft because it and its crew are stationed at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha.
While briefing reporters on the plane during his first trip to Afghanistan, Hagel pointed out that the crew was from his home state.
“So I just wanted to restate the fact that you should have absolute confidence in the Nebraska leadership and the quality and the capability that is displayed every minute of every day,” Hagel told the press corps. “So I want to thank the guys who are out of Omaha and Bellevue and Papillion. I found one of our communications guys is from Fremont, Neb., and he wanted me to know that his parents had voted for me twice.”
That communications guy, Tech Sgt. Jake Herre, joined the military after graduating from high school in Fremont.
He was assigned to Offutt just before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and recalled how President George W. Bush came to Offutt that day. Base security officers were running around, rifles at the ready, he said.
“It was a real tense moment,” Herre said.
He helped fly two previous defense secretaries around — Donald Rumsfeld and Leon Panetta — but it is special to serve a Nebraskan, he said.
Herre said he always followed politics and was excited when Hagel, a former GOP senator from Nebraska, was named defense secretary.
“I'm a Husker fan as well,” Herre said.
The 45 crew members on board a recent flight included maintenance staff, communications specialists, pilots, flight attendants and security personnel who keep watch over the plane while it's on the ground.
The mission: get the secretary where he's going and ensure that he can talk to the rest of the world on his way.
Douez quotes a previous senior military adviser who said of the E4-B: “This is no Gucci airplane. This is a working-man airplane.”
A crack maintenance team keeps the plane running.
“If we have the part, they can fix it,” Douez said.
That can be a big “if.” The plane is pushing 40 years old, and extra parts aren't always easy to find. That's why the belly of the aircraft is stuffed with spare equipment.
The plane can be refueled in the air, saving time. On a recent trip, the plane refueled halfway to Hawaii with the help of two KC-135 tankers.
Flying high over the Pacific Ocean, the first tanker pulled into position just above and ahead of the E4-B, the refueling boom dangling out the back.
“Contact” came over the radio as the line hooked the two planes together and 50,000 pounds of fuel started flowing.
The bright blue sky was dotted with fluffy white clouds. It's a lot tougher when the weather's poor.
“These are ideal conditions,” said the pilot, Maj. Lance Hofer.
How do they like flying a Husker around?
The co-pilot, Maj. Jon Grossrhode, notes that Hagel actually went to the same school as he did, the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“He's a Maverick,” Grossrhode said.
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