Last week’s EF1 tornado knocked out half of the Pentagon’s fleet of four E-4B Nightwatch aircraft — popularly known as the “Doomsday” plane — when the twister hopscotched through Offutt Air Force Base, Air Force officials said Friday.

The June 16 tornado also damaged eight of the 55th Wing’s fleet of 29 RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, which fly critical surveillance missions in the Middle East, the western Pacific and the Far East. Seven of the RC-135s sustained only minor damage, said Drew Nystrom, a 55th Wing spokesman, and six have been repaired and returned to “mission-capable” status.

Inspectors have not yet determined the cost of the repairs to the aircraft, Nystrom said.

“55th Wing’s combat capability was not affected by the storm,” he said. “We have and will continue to meet any and all higher-headquarters requirements.”

In what Nystrom described as a “very preliminary” estimate, the storm caused between $7 million and $10 million worth of damage to other Offutt facilities. Most of that is for roof repairs, tree removal, heating and air-conditioning repairs, fencing replacement and the associated manpower costs, he said.

The tornado struck a base housing area and an Air Force golf course west of Highway 75 just after 8 p.m. June 16, uprooting trees and toppling fences. It crossed the highway and rumbled across the base just south of the runway, packing winds of up to 110 miles per hour, the National Weather Service said.

A second tornado — an EF2, south and west of Offutt — damaged homes and knocked down hundreds of utility poles.

Retired Brig. Gen. Reg Urschler of Bellevue, a former 55th Wing commander who has flown both RC-135s and E-4Bs, said it’s rare for so many aircraft to sustain storm damage.

“I can’t recall ever a situation of this magnitude,” Urschler said. “It’s unheard of.”

The two E-4Bs and at least one of the RC-135s were parked during the storm in hangars, but with their tails exposed to the strong winds. During a media tour of Offutt storm damage on Monday, the tails of one E-4B and one RC-135 seemed to be slightly askew in the hangars, but base officials declined to discuss the aircraft or permit photos.

The RC-135s are surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft used primarily as airborne listening posts. All are based at Offutt, but the jets are frequently deployed to bases in Japan, Qatar, Great Britain and Greece. They have been operating continuously in the Middle East since August 1990.

Because of the small fleet and crucial mission of the E-4Bs, the loss of two is considered the most critical impact. Their crews have the grim but essential task of continuing national communications in the event of nuclear war, earning them the “Doomsday” moniker.

The jets — built in the 1970s and adapted from civilian Boeing 747-200 airframes — would serve as the National Airborne Operations Center for the president, defense secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff following such a catastrophe.

The Air Force has spent at least $2 billion on upgrades since 2005 to extend their life. Besides their primary mission, they are sometimes used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency during natural disasters and by the defense secretary for overseas trips.

About 20 members of each jet’s battle staff are drawn from the Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command, said Lt. Col. Marty O’Donnell, a StratCom spokesman. Each can carry a crew of up to 112.

For years the E-4Bs had been part of the Offutt-based 55th Wing. Last year their command was restructured into the new 595th Command and Control Group, which reports to the Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

A team of inspectors from Barksdale has flown to Offutt to assess the damage, said Capt. Michele Rollins, a spokeswoman at the Louisiana base.

“Global Strike has people on the ground,” she said. “We want to be sure they’re able to do their assessment.”

Rollins said it’s not yet known how long repairs to the two jets will take or how much they will cost.

She said on the night of the storm, a third E-4B — the “primary aircraft” that night — was at another, undisclosed location. She didn’t discuss the fourth jet, but typically one of the aircraft is being overhauled at any given time and is unavailable for missions, 55th Wing maintenance records show.

Al Buckles, a former director of operations and logistics at StratCom who still advises his former command, said other military aircraft can carry out the work of Nightwatch if necessary.

“There is a plan,” Buckles said. “This is not the first time this situation has occurred.”

steve.liewer@owh.com, 402-444-1186

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