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Offutt cancels air shows until at least 2022 because of planned runway reconstruction

Offutt cancels air shows until at least 2022 because of planned runway reconstruction

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Offutt Air Force Base’s popular air show has been canceled for 2020 and 2021 because of the upcoming reconstruction of the airfield’s only runway, a 55th Wing official said.

The Defenders of Freedom Air Show and Open House draws visitors by the tens of thousands but has become a hit-and-miss affair in recent years. It was held in 2014, 2016 and 2018 but was canceled in 2013 because of federal budget cuts, in 2015 because of airfield reconstruction, in 2017 because of the 55th Wing’s busy deployment schedule, and in 2019 because of floods that engulfed the base in March.

Earlier this month, the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor demonstration team had tweeted out a 2020 schedule that included a stop at Offutt in August, prompting speculation that the on-again, off-again air show was back on.

The World-Herald queried the 55th Wing, which said it was not.

“We did not submit a request to host an air show in 2020,” said Staff Sgt. Jacob Skovo-Lane, a 55th Wing spokesman, or in 2021. Because two years’ notice is required, the earliest possible date is 2022.

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The F-22 team later tweeted a correction.

Offutt’s runway was constructed in 1941, built along with the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant for the production of military aircraft during World War II. It was extended to its current length of 11,700 feet in the mid-1950s.

Since then, the runway has been patched numerous times, but never completely rebuilt. In 2015, the Air Force raised concerns about the runway’s condition, complaining that half of the crumbling pavement is more than 40 years old.

Congressional, state and local political leaders, fearing that the 55th Wing and its more than 5,000 military and civilian employees might be moved to another base, mobilized in support of Offutt’s runway reconstruction. They secured funding to patch about one-fourth of the runway that was in the worst condition, at an estimated cost of $100 million.

Last January, the Air Force announced it would rebuild the whole runway, at a cost of $130 million. Then-Lt. Col. Vance Goodfellow, former deputy commander of the 55th Mission Support Group, argued the higher upfront cost was justified by lower maintenance costs in the future.

“It’s less costly when you look at the total life cycle,” he said at the time.

Massive floods in March caused damage estimated at up to $1 billion. Dozens of buildings along the southern half of the runway were destroyed and will have to be rebuilt. That prompted Col. Michael Manion, then the 55th Wing commander, to pull the plug on last summer’s air show as the entire base mobilized to clean up and rebuild.

Later in the summer, the 55th Wing pushed the start of the runway project back 10 months, to October 2020, and raised the cost estimate to $176 million with additions to the project that included reconstruction of the airfield’s apron and “hammerhead” turnaround area.

During the reconstruction projection, Offutt’s 29 C-135-variant reconnaissance jets and four E-4B Nightwatch airborne command post aircraft will operate out of temporary quarters at the Lincoln Airport. About 800 workers will be bused to Lincoln each day from Sarpy County at an estimated cost of $11.5 million.

It’s not yet clear whether the air show will be back in 2022. Even if the runway project wraps up on schedule, the recovery and reconstruction of buildings lost in the March floods is expected to cost at least $359 million and continue for up to five years.

“Team Offutt looks forward to opening our gates to the local community for an open house and air show,” Skovo-Lane said. “But at the moment we do not have one planned for the near future.”

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The floods of 2019 have left hundreds of aircraft maintainers working in Offutt Air Force Base’s two largest hangars without hot water or toilets. For a year, that has been an unpleasant inconvenience. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic making frequent hand-washing necessary, some fear that the situation could be a hazard to their health.

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