Editor’s note: This article was first published in the Nebraska Examiner.

BELLEVUE, Nebraska — The roar of jet engines returned to Offutt Air Force Base at 2:08 p.m. Friday, on a new runway that took more than a decade to fund and fully rebuild.

Congress and the Air Force spent $172 million remaking the 80-year-old runway. They spent another $45 million moving the 55th Wing to Lincoln, where it was based during 18 months of construction.

But getting the Air Force to acknowledge the runway’s problems and prioritize a full rebuild took 15 years or more of Nebraskans meeting with Air Force brass and bird-dogging the military budget.

Over that span, the project climbed from one aimed at setting aside millions of dollars for patchwork repairs to one that weighed a plan to partially repave the runway to one that embraced building it all over again.

Past and present members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation and others spoke to the Nebraska Examiner in recent days about the work it took to secure a new 12,000-foot runway.

Base leaders shared concerns about the runway with U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., after she took office in 2013. Air Force leaders nationally told her the runway was in “very good condition.”

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer (right) speaks to Col. Kristen Thompson (left), commander of the 55th Wing, as Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., looks on, at Offutt Air Force Base on Sept. 30, 2022.

She asked them to study the runway’s condition. She knew what the Air Force would find in 2015, when engineers rated Offutt’s runway as the worst in the Air Force’s Combat Command.

“It was clear that the runway was really a disaster,” she told an Offutt crowd of more than 150 people celebrating the runway’s return Friday. “It was in disrepair.”

Fischer, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, worked in 2016 with Nebraska Republican Reps. Don Bacon, Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith to secure $7.5 million for design work. The Air Force formally committed to a full rebuild of the runway in 2019.

The delegation also made sure the Air Force had the funding in its operations and maintenance budgets to cover the combined $217 million cost of the project.

Fischer said Bacon, a retired brigadier general, was helpful in a lot of meetings because he was a former commander of the Air Force’s 55th Wing. She said he “spoke their language.”

Bacon on Friday recalled his time running the base in 2012, when he said his four-star commander had to circle Offutt while Bacon’s crews finished emergency repairs to the runway.

Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, addresses a crowd of more than 150 people at a ceremony marking the opening of a new runway at Offutt Air Force Base on Sept. 30, 2022.

He credited Fischer and the late Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., whom he beat in 2016. Ashford had worked with the delegation to secure $55 million for repairs before Bacon took office in 2017.

“This is beautiful, to see it come to fruition,” Bacon said of the rebuild. “We went from the worst runway in the Air Force to the best.”

Ashford’s widow, Ann, laughed recalling how he warned former President Barack Obama in January 2016 that Air Force One was about to have a bumpy landing at Offutt, but that he could fix it.

Fortenberry, a member of the House Appropriations Committee at the time, made sure both Offutt and the Lincoln Airport got the funding they needed, a former staffer said. He created a task force in the mid-2010s to focus on the issue.

Former Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., who represented Offutt for much of his time in Congress from 1999 to 2015, said improving the World War II-era runway was often the top priority of Offutt commanders when he visited the base.

“So I made that my priority,” Terry said.

He said he worked with the House Armed Services Committee and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., on runway repairs until Ashford replaced Terry in 2015.

The delegation got some help from local business leaders and a boost from a series of articles in the Omaha World-Herald detailing the poor condition of the runway, boosters said.

Fischer and Bacon said they see Air Force investments in a new runway, a new headquarters for U.S. Strategic Command and $1 billion in flood repairs as a clear national commitment to Offutt.

The base hosts the 55th Wing and STRATCOM, which oversees U.S. nuclear forces. About 10,000 people work there.

The new runway at Offutt Air Force Base and a repaired air traffic control tower on Sept. 30, 2022.

“When you have a big project like this, it takes years and years,” Fischer said before her speech Friday. “It’s just really nice to see it completed. This is extremely important to the country.”

Bacon said he hopes the runway reopened Friday is just a start. His goal, he said, is to see Offutt one day add a second runway, going north to south.

“Our nuclear survivability and deterrence depends on this runway,” he said.

Bacon made his first major public appearance Friday at Offutt since having an emergency appendectomy Wednesday in Maryland. He said he wouldn’t have missed the runway ceremony, though he said he might be in a little pain Saturday.

Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, and Col. Kristen Thompson, commander of the 55th Wing, praised the resilience of Offutt airmen and women.

Both Kelly and Thompson said Offutt service members survived the historic flood of 2019, relocation to Lincoln, a complete rebuild of the runway and the coronavirus pandemic.

“The runway is back,” Thompson said. “To our airmen and their families, welcome home.”

Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.

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