By Richard Clark, News On 6
TULSA, OK -- A huge military airplane drew a crowd Thursday morning when it conducted some touch and go landings at Tulsa International Airport. The plane was a military version of the Boeing 747, officially designated the E-4B Nightwatch.
The Pentagon calls the E-4B the National Airborne Operations Center or NAOC. It was converted from the airline version of the 747 so it could be used by the president, secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In the event of a national emergency or destruction of ground command control centers, the aircraft provides a command, control and communications center that would be hard for an enemy to locate.
The E-4B's were first deployed in 1974, when they were known as the National Emergency Airborne Command Post or NEACP, which was pronounced "Kneecap".
In 1994, NEACP's name was changed to NAOC and the aircraft took on another responsibility: carrying FEMA crews to the sites of natural disasters where it serves as a temporary command post on the ground until more permanent facilities can be set up.
A division of the Air Force called Air Combat Command provides the maintenance and flight crews, but the planes' operations are coordinated by Strategic Command, which in turn answers to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Strategic Command coordinates all of the Pentagon's strategic assets, regardless of whatever branch of service they serve.
In addition to the aircraft's status as an important national security asset, that command structure can make it a challenge to get details about its operation, including Thursday morning's training session in Tulsa.
We do know the E-4B's are flown by the 1st Airborne Command and Control Squadron from the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. The Squadron has a total of four. The airplanes used to be kept at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, but were moved to the Midwest so they'd be safer from attack.
One E-4B and its crew stays on full alert at all times. One stays relatively close to Air Force One so that the President can access it quickly from anywhere in the world.
It's possible an E-4B could return to Tulsa and do more touch and go landings at any time. But the Air Force isn't saying when, or if, that will happen.