When Master Sgt. Ken Parker walked into his storm-tossed aircraft hangar at Offutt Air Force Base last June, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
The swing-shift production superintendent of the 595th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and a group of his mechanics had taken shelter in a hallway as an EF-1 tornado pummeled the base just after 8 p.m. Friday, June 16, 2017. They listened to the clang and clatter in the adjacent hangar bay as the cyclone, with winds up to 110 mph, blew open the 30,000-pound hangar doors, pushed the unit’s two giant E-4B Nightwatch jets around like 200-ton tricycles, and rinsed the interior with a torrent of rain and debris.
“The biggest thing was the noise. It was deafening,” Parker, an 18-year Air Force veteran, said in an interview last month.
The two jets sustained $8.3 million worth of damage, primarily to their wing tips and tails. One of the jets had smashed into a maintenance stand, punching a hole in the plane’s nose. Some fuel from a wingtip tank had sloshed onto the floor, prompting the airmen to cordon off the area and summon the fire department.
At first it wasn’t clear how the 595th Command and Control Group, the squadron’s parent command, would continue to fly the E-4B as the government’s “Doomsday Jet,” ready to take off and serve as a survivable command post for the president and defense secretary in case of a nuclear war.
Boeing, which manufactured the E-4B, sent a repair team, while Parker and the rest of the 200-member maintenance squadron worked to maintain the one remaining available jet. It had been on alert status at another Air Force base and was undamaged. It took 11 weeks before both jets were returned to service.
“We never dropped the mission,” said Lt. Col. Douglas Dodge, the squadron’s commander. “We were always prepared and ready to do whatever was required.”
In January, the 595th squadron won Global Strike Command’s annual “Maintenance Effectiveness Award” largely because of the work that was done in the tornado’s aftermath to keep the unit flying. It will now compete against other winners for an Air Force-wide award.
Parker and two other maintenance airmen — Tech. Sgts. Olivia Fernandez and Walter Scott — also earned Air Force Commendation Medals for their actions moments before the tornado struck.
As the storm threatened, the two E-4Bs had been towed inside to prevent hail damage. Since both planes couldn’t fit in the hangar at the same time, their 6-story-high tails were left exposed.
But after the tornado warning was issued, Parker realized someone needed to remove a 3-inch pin that locked the two jets’ nose gear in place or risk crippling damage. So he, Fernandez and Scott dashed out of their hallway shelter and ran across the hangar to pull them. They ducked back just in time.
“If (the nose gear) wouldn’t have been allowed to move freely, it could have collapsed,” Parker said. “The team went in the hangar and tried to save the airplane as best we could.”