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Lightning strikes tear up chunks of Offutt runway

Lightning strikes tear up chunks of Offutt runway

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Powerful lightning bolts danced up and down Offutt Air Force Base’s 2-mile-long runway during Wednesday night’s thunderstorms, adding to the weather-related woes recently inflicted upon the base.

Lightning struck the runway in at least 10 places, according to a Facebook post by 55th Wing Commander Col. Michael Manion. The strikes prompted emergency repairs by the Wing’s civil engineering squadron. A spokesman said the repairs were completed by noon, and the airfield was reopened.

Manion’s Facebook post said the lightning tore holes 3 to 5 inches deep in the concrete surface. One photo showed a broken chunk that appeared to be at least 2 feet long and 8 inches wide.

It dwarfed a hand-held radio that had been placed next to it for the photo.

The airfield wasn’t operating at the time. Some of the 55th Wing’s reconnaissance aircraft had been flown to other bases ahead of the storm, and others had been pulled into hangars.

“Big storm last night brought big lightning,” Manion said in the post. “We will put it back together and you will see/hear airpower again later today.”

55th Wing officials couldn’t confirm exactly when the lightning hit. But Katie Gross, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Valley, said the peak of the storm passed over Offutt shortly before 11 p.m.

These are the first severe thunderstorms to hit the area this spring, part of a strong low pressure system that caused blizzard conditions Wednesday and Thursday in western and central Nebraska.

Gross said lightning seeks the shortest path to the ground, which often is through trees or structures. But in an open space like an airfield, bolts may hit the ground.

“Obviously, it was a powerful strike,” Gross said. “It’s going to leave a mark.”

Offutt is still recovering from last month’s flood, which submerged about one-third of the base under waters from the nearby Missouri and Platte Rivers. Forty-four buildings sustained damage, and about a quarter of the runway was underwater.

In 2017, an EF-1 tornado struck Offutt’s flightline, causing about $20 million worth of damage to buildings and aircraft.

The 55th Wing also is planning to rebuild the runway beginning in December, at a cost of $130 million. It is the most extensive reconstruction since the runway was built in 1941 and extended to its current length in the mid-1950s.


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The weather forecast for the weekend is typical of spring in Nebraska and Iowa. In other words, it's not unusually ominous. But powerful super cell storms are expected, and it just takes one of those to strike a city for significant damage to occur from hail, straight-line winds or even a tornado. 

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The project had been scheduled to begin in December but is now being pushed back to October 2020, with completion one year later. And the cost of the project, estimated at $130 million when it was announced in January, has now jumped to $176 million, said Col. Alan Dayton, who heads Offutt’s 55th Mission Support Group. 

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It’s not yet known how extensive — or expensive — the renovation project will be. It is certain that the renovation will encompass a lot of work on the building’s interior infrastructure. The electrical wiring, plumbing, heating/air conditioning, and communications systems all need major work.

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