February 5, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

How many times have moviegoers seen Washington, D.C. destroyed by a wayward nuke/seven-mile-wide comet/giant solar flare/fire-throwing robots/aliens/zombies or renegade paramilitary outfit, only to have a fearless pilot save the day at the last minute? Hollywood, at least since the Cold War, has thrived on channeling Americans’ apocalyptic fears, now more clearly defined since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

While the causes of the onscreen cataclysmic events may be a little off-kilter, swooping in to rescue officials from the highest levels of government is no fantasy for a select group of pilots at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, including Major Jon Grossrhode. A member of the 1st Airborne Command & Control Squadron and a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Grossrhode (pronounced GROSS-road-ee) flies one of the great wonders of the aeronautical world.

The military calls the highly modified Boeing 747-200 series the E-4B: its project name, Nightwatch. Civilians know it as the “Doomsday Plane,” but Grossrhode isn’t biting.

“Well, some people call it that,” the 34-year old Plattsmouth resident says quietly, clearly not comfortable surrendering the vital importance of Nightwatch to pop culture lingo.

If a worst-case scenario unfolds in Washington, “We will support the President and his national security team, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs,” explains Grossrhode. “The plane has been tested (to withstand) nuclear attacks.” Thus, Nightwatch becomes an airborne command post. Its ability to re-fuel in the air allows the plane to fly for days. The 165,000 pounds of electronics onboard keep the lines of communication open with forces on the ground.

There are actually four E-4Bs that rotate a maintenance schedule, leaving two planes on active duty at any given time. An E-4 is somewhere in the world on alert 24/7, 365 days a year. Since the planes are based at Offutt, Midlanders often look up in the sky, see an E-4 on a training mission between Omaha and Lincoln, and mistake it for its cousin, Air Force One.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (our July/August 2014 Omaha Magazine cover feature), a western Nebraska native and 1971 UNO graduate, already knows the E-4 quite well. He uses it for overseas trips, with Maj. Grossrhode one of three pilots at the controls.

“We’ll fly from Offutt to Andrews (Air Force Base) and he meets us there,” explains Grossrhode. What are the odds (all due respect to Tom Cruise and Top Gun) that two UNO Mavericks would find commonality aboard a plane also manned by a Nebraska-based crew?

“I knew he had gone to UNO, but you just can’t go up to the Secretary of Defense and say, ‘Hey, what’s up? How’s it going?’” says Grossrhode, showing a flash of humor. “His staff introduced me to him.” The two men have since formed a bond, often chatting about Omaha and Offutt.

“[Hagel] comes up to the flight deck, puts on a headset and thanks us every time,” Grossrhode says, adding, “He’s very personable.”

A tour of the E-4B shows a plane short on amenities but huge on technology, with conference rooms, offices, and space for a full complement of media. Hagel’s quarters are spartan compared to the facilities on the President’s plane. He has a bunk bed, several chairs, and a small bathroom with a sink, but no shower, making a 15-hour flight from Beijing to D.C. challenging. Nightwatch can reach a top speed of 602 mph but “with a good tail wind, it can be faster,” says Grossrhode.

The son of a career Air Force dentist and a high school guidance counselor who are both from the Omaha area, Maj. Grossrhode grew up on several bases around the country. He knew early on that he wanted to honor his father’s legacy by becoming an Air Force pilot. He even looks the part of a man entrusted with the Air Force’s last line of defense. Tall and lanky with close-cropped hair, the soft-spoken Grossrhode has to bend his head way down to enter the E-4 cockpit, which is literally covered from top to bottom in switches and doo-dads of all stripes. Already a seasoned pilot by the time he trained on the E-4, Maj. Grossrhode credits his college experience with giving him a solid foundation.

“I wanted to live near my aunts, uncles and cousins, so I chose to go to UNO,” he explains. As a student at the school’s Aviation Institute, a gem of a program but little-known outside aviation circles, Grossrhode trained at Eppley Airfield and earned his private pilot’s license by the time he graduated in 2002. He arrived at Offutt in 2007 after serving as an instructor pilot in Oklahoma.

He has enjoyed every day since he arrived back home seven years ago.

“I’m living my dream,” he says. “I wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember, since I was a little boy. I grew up on Air Force bases watching air shows, getting to know the pilots. Now I get to come to work and fly every day.

“And I get paid for it!”

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  • evworldeditor

    My old neighbor, Rob Moses used to be the command pilot on the E-4. Now, as a civilian, he’s responsible for ongoing system upgrades on the fleet. Great guy, super family.