Lincoln Airport Reaps Long-Term Benefits From Temporary Relocation of Air Force Base Operations

Lincoln Airport Reaps Long-Term Benefits From Temporary Relocation of Air Force Base Operations
Jennifer Daack Woolson
Published in: 

The original runway at Offutt Air Force Base just south of Omaha, NE, was built back in 1941 and extended to its current 11,700-foot length in the mid-1950s. It received repairs in fits and starts during the intervening 80 years, and the Air Force finally decided it was time for a total overhaul four years ago. That set in motion a complex plan to temporarily relocate operations of the Air Force’s 55th Wing, which includes a fleet of 29 Boeing RC-135-variants, and 595th Command & Control Group, which includes four E-4B Nightwatch aircraft (dubbed “doomsday planes” because they serve as aerial command centers for top military officials in the event of a catastrophic national emergency, such as a nuclear attack), as well as several Navy E-6B Mercury communications and reconnaissance jets. The new home Air Force leadership selected was nearby Lincoln Airport (LNK).

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Derrick Michaud, director of the 55th Wing Runway Program Management Office and Mission Support Group deputy commander at Offutt, is the guiding force behind the relocation. The massive effort includes the Lincoln Airport Authority, engineers, designers, contractors, fliers, maintenance and security forces; but Michaud is charged with keeping them all moving in the right direction. “My whole point in life is to just make sure the effort keeps going forward,” he remarks.


Project: Apron & Hangar Improvements

Location: Lincoln (NE) Airport

Owner: Lincoln Airport Authority

Tenants/Operators: 55th Wing, U.S. Air Force; 595th Command & Control Group

Horizontal Projects: Apron mill/overlay (50 acres); painting; new loading dock ramp; refurbished loading dock; improvements to access roads & vehicle parking

Vertical Projects: Refurbishing 98,270-sq-ft hangar; erecting 37,120-sq-ft temporary hangar; building & other improvements over 100-acre property

Cost: $31 million 

Funding: U.S. Air Force

Construction: April 2019 – Sept. 2020

Design: Jacobs Engineering

Engineer: Alfred Benesch & Co.

Contractor: Constructors Inc.

Subcontractors: Cheever; Shanahan; IESCI; Moen Steel Erection; Titanium Sprinkler

Asphalt Supplier: Constructors Inc.

Temporary Hangar: Sprung

Sliding Aircraft Gates: TYMETAL Corp.

Michaud says that Offutt has long had a great relationship with partners at LNK, including the Lincoln Airport Authority and the 155th Air Refueling Wing. The base has actually temporarily moved operations to LNK several times, most recently for a few months in 2006 during minor runway repair work on its own airfield. So when the base needed a place for this more extensive 18-month relocation, the choice was clear. “We already had those relationships, and we knew it was a win for us to be able to travel just an hour over there as opposed to picking up everything and going a longer distance,” Michaud explains. 

Although some staff members stay in Lincoln during the week, about 750 personnel commute daily in Offutt’s fleet of charter buses, cars, vans and trucks. Ensuring that personnel could go home every night to spend more time with their families was a key advantage, notes Michaud. 

From an operational standpoint, LNK’s 13,000-foot runway also made it the logical choice.

The move began in mid-January 2021 with ground-based equipment and concluded in early February 2021 with the relocation of Offutt’s aircraft and flight operations. But preparations for the project started many years ago.

Putting the Plan in Motion

Initially, Offutt was supposed to have a partial slab replacement in 2017 to repair the worst parts of the runway. But over time, it was determined that the runway was in need of a full slab replacement, which was approved in 2018. That shifted the duration of the relocation from 12 months to 18.

Originally, Offutt’s aircraft were scheduled to relocate to LNK in 2018, but the move was pushed back. That’s often the case with projects of this complexity, notes Chad Lay, director of planning and development for LNK. As Offutt personnel shifted gears to the expanded scope of their runway project, they also assessed the infrastructure at LNK to determine what upgrades and modifications would be required for their extended stay.

When the runway improvements at Offutt became a much larger project, that meant personnel and operations would be at LNK through the winter for the first time. “Any time you start to put snow removal operations into play with aircraft operations, that is a whole different picture,” explains Lay. “And they were going to need to have more permanent facilities as a result.”

Preparing for Company

The Air Force spent $31 million to remodel and lease temporary space at LNK. Construction ran from April 2019 to Sept. 2020, with improvements broken into two packages: horizontal and vertical.

Horizontal work included milling and paving 50 acres of parking apron on the west side of the airport where the former Lincoln Air Force Base was housed before it closed in the 1960s. The area remained largely unused, except for an occasional airshow and a short stint as a tractor testing center. As a result, the pavement had fallen into disrepair and was in need of fairly significant rehabilitation.

Andrew Beil, vice president and senior project manager for Alfred Benesch & Company, LNK’s on-call civil engineering consultant, handled construction observation and quality acceptance material testing for the various projects—including the massive paving job.

Beil reports that it took about six weeks for the primary contractor, Constructors Inc., to mill all of the concrete down 3 inches and resurface it with asphalt. Before crews could begin, though, they had to remove 1,700 aircraft tie down units that were embedded in the concrete back in the 1950s. The laborious process added two to three weeks to the schedule because workers had to core out the steel pieces one by one.

Other horizontal projects included improvements to roads and vehicle parking areas.

The vertical work package involved two hangars. The first project was refurbishing a 98,270-square-foot aircraft maintenance hangar built in the 1950s as part of Lincoln Air Force Base. In 1970s and ’80s, Goodyear used the facility for a distribution warehouse. Lay notes that structurally, the nearly 75-year-old hangar was in good shape, but it needed considerable interior work to bring it up to the operational status the Air Force needed.

Jacobs Engineering, designer of record for the project, modernized the space to include offices, a break area and lunchroom, computer labs and areas for maintenance, supplies and parts. Crews upgraded all of the electrical systems and installed new radiant heaters.

The other major vertical improvement is a 34,000-square-foot clamshell hangar made of extruded aluminum beams with a polymer membrane stretched over them. The temporary 160 x 210-foot structure, manufactured by Sprung, took just less than four months to erect, with a company representative on-site guiding the process. The Air Force is using the temporary building for fuel system and general maintenance.

Because of the constantly shifting schedule, one of the biggest challenges for the project team was working with the city’s planning department to determine whether the Sprung hangar should be classified as a temporary or permanent structure. “The bed down for the Air Force was going to be about 18 months,” Beil explains. “So even though it’s a ‘temporary’ facility, we were walking this line between temporary and permanent, which have different code requirements.”

Because both hangars are located outside the airport security fence, project designers specified two rolling gates from TYMETAL Corp. to allow planes to pass through for maintenance on the landside. Workers installed the 170-foot-long “super” gates on tracks in the concrete.

In total, it took $31 million of infrastructure improvements and leased space to make LNK a suitable temporary base for the 55th Wing. With an additional $17 million in relocation costs, and $168 million for the new runway at Offutt, that brought the Air Force’s total project cost to $220 million. 

Collaboration & Coordination

In retrospect, Michaud feels that the temporary relocation has been successful so far. “One thing we do in the military pretty well is plan, right? We had a lot of good plans in place, and a lot of good coordination. Most things have gone pretty well.”

The biggest challenge to date came early in the mission, when personnel had to grit through 13 inches of snow and frigid temperatures while relocating aircraft and other physical assets in early February. “If we ever do this again, we’ll move in July,” Michaud jokes. 

Regarding the infrastructure changes at LNK, he is quick to credit great partnerships Offutt has with the Lincoln Airport Authority, the 155th Air Refueling Wing, the city of Lincoln and the state of Nebraska. “I cannot say enough about all the things they’ve done,” he emphasizes. “We could probably have muscled through on our own. But it’s so much better with our partners over there who have 100% taken us in and helped us out. We, as a wing, are very thankful.”

Weekly progress meetings held every Friday brought together the key players. Participants checked in to ensure that everything was on track at a tactical level and to prepare for upcoming challenges. The group included representatives from Offutt, Lincoln Airport Authority, LNK air traffic control, the Air Force Civil Engineering Center, the primary contractor and its subcontractors, Benesch & Company and Jacobs, the engineer of record.

Beil says the meetings often lasted two or more hours as the group plowed through an eight- to 10-page agenda. But they were worth it. “As we got into them, we found that we needed to get more in the weeds as far as the detail goes, because the representatives from Offutt would use that as a reporting mechanism to brief their contracting officers,” he explains.

Speaking from the airport’s perspective, Lay also appreciates the coordination and collaboration needed to get this kind of joint project over the finish line. “When we were going through everything from code reviews to determining the best path of fuel trucks for the aircraft, there was a lot of interaction with entities like the city,” he says. “But I think they understood what it was we were trying to achieve, and that, all in all, it was a temporary operation. So everybody was willing to keep that in mind, and work in a collaborative fashion to not hold the project up.”

Now that the infrastructure upgrades have been made and the relocation choreography is finished, LNK is getting used to sharing its airfield with a new large tenant that operates a lot of aircraft and follows very specific security protocols. “The operational coordination that happens day to day with them actually living here now requires a lot of back and forth between the airport and the Air Force so we can continue to carry out our airfield operational needs, but not negatively impact Offutt’s operations,” says Lay.

It’s a challenge LNK will deal with until the 55th Wing moves its operations back to Offutt in September 2022.

When that happens, LNK will be left with many improvements. After the Air Force personnel leave, Lay and other officials plan to market the refurbished hangar to other organizations and use the 50 acres of newly resurfaced pavement to help attract tenants to grow the west side of the airport.

General Aviation

2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement

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This whitepaper highlights the construction projects, initiatives, programs and events that validate Charlotte Douglas as a premier airport.

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