Tornado devastates Nebraska airport

October 7, 2013

Photo courtesy of AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Jesse Kaufman.

A tornado that wreaked destruction in northeastern Nebraska on Oct. 4 spent much of its wrath on the town of Wayne, where buildings sustained damage estimated in the millions of dollars and the airport took an especially hard hit.

 "All was destroyed except one row of t-hangars," said Jesse Kaufman, a local flight instructor and AOPA’s Airport Support Network volunteer at Wayne Municipal Airport/Stan Morris Field, in an email message.

Kaufman posted numerous photographs of the damage on a Facebook page, where they stood in contrast to the page’s bits of aeronautical wisdom, encouraging messages, happy photos of aviation novitiates achieving training milestones, and scenic aerial photos of the Great Plains taken in the vicinity of Wayne, population 5,663.

The FAA posted notices to airmen after the storm about the airport’s closure and the automated weather observing station and nondirectional beacon being out of service—all with "estimated" return-to-service dates of Dec. 31. There are 24 aircraft based at the airport.

News accounts reported estimates that the tornado reached the EF4 level on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which would mean that a three-second wind gust could have reached speeds from 166 to 200 miles per hour.

"One minute you’ve got a beautiful airport and now you don’t have anything," said Airport Manager Tom Becker, expressing his determination to rebuild. Aircraft ranging from a Cessna 421 twin that had come to the airport for maintenance to an award-winning 1941 Taylorcraft restoration were among the 11 aircraft destroyed, he said.

An especially bitter pill for Becker was the loss, among nine buildings brought down, of a new maintenance hangar and terminal building that had been under construction since last fall. The structures were about three weeks from completion, he said. 

The tornado’s destruction brought Wayne’s City Council into an emergency weekend meeting, and citizens interested in volunteering to participate in clean-up operations were urged to report to the local National Guard armory.

Mayor Ken Chamberlain predicted a lengthy recovery process, according to one news account of the storm.

As a group of Wayne-area residents walked the airport grounds helping to clear debris, Becker was trying to look on the bright side, optimistically predicting that the airport would reopen—minus fuel and most of its infrastructure—by week’s end.

"Not many airports get a second chance," he said, adding, "We’ll be all right."

The widespread storm system that produced the tornado also brought destruction to Iowa and snow to South Dakota. Updates about the storm from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration were unavailable as a result of the federal government shutdown, said a notice that appeared in place of the NOAA home page. 

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.