Plane of the Week #17: Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit

This week’s plane of the week is the Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

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The Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit, also known as the Stealth Bomber, is an American heavy strategic bomber, featuring low observable stealth technology designed for penetrating dense anti-aircraft defenses. It is a flying wing design with a crew of two. The bomber can deploy both conventional and thermonuclear weapons, such as eighty 500 lb-class Mk 82 JDAM GPS-guided bombs, or sixteen 2,400 lb B83 nuclear bombs. The B-2 is the only known stealth aircraft that can carry large air-to-surface standoff weapons.

AV-1 Spirit of America as it was first revealed to the public.
AV-1 Spirit of America as it was first revealed to the public.

The U.S. Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber is a key component of the nation’s long-range strike arsenal, and one of the most survivable aircraft in the world. Its unique capabilities, including its stealth characteristics, allow it to penetrate the most sophisticated enemy defenses and destroy heavily defended targets. The B-2 has demonstrated its capabilities in several combat scenarios, including Operation Allied Force in Kosovo; Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and most recently, in Libya, during Operation Odyssey Dawn.

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Development originally started under the “Advanced Technology Bomber” project during the Carter administration, and its expected performance was one of his reasons for the cancellation of the supersonic B-1A bomber. ATB continued during the Reagan administration, but worries about delays in its introduction led to the reinstatement of the B-1 program as well. Program costs rose throughout development. Designed and manufactured by Northrop Grumman, the cost of each aircraft averaged $737 million (in 1997 dollars).[3] Total procurement costs averaged $929 million per aircraft, which includes spare parts, equipment, retrofitting, and software support. The total program cost including development, engineering and testing, averaged $2.1 billion per aircraft in 1997. Ouch. Because of its enourmous costs, the project was controversial in the U.S. Congress and among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The winding-down of the Cold War in the late 80s dramatically reduced the need for the aircraft, which was designed with the intention of penetrating Soviet airspace and attacking high-value targets. During the late 1980s and 1990s, Congress slashed plans to purchase 132 bombers to 21. In 2008, a B-2 was destroyed in a crash shortly after takeoff, though the crew ejected safely. A total of 20 B-2s remain in service with the United States Air Force, which plans to operate the B-2 until 2058.

B-2 Spirit Bomber

The flying wing design helps to minimize the plane’s radar cross signature and provides a highly efficient flight envelope. However, its inherently unstable flight characteristics require a steadier hand than what a human can provide. Therefore, the B-2 uses a fly-by-wire flight control system to automatically collect environmental data, such as airspeed and attack angle, via pilot-static sensing plates and then adjust the aircraft’s flight surfaces accordingly to maintain control. The flight control system is so advanced that the pilot can toggle between three flight types: takeoff, landing, and “go-to-war” simply by flipping a switch. The computer will take care of the rest, selecting the appropriate avionics and equipment for the activity. The B-2 offers such a high level of flight and navigational automation that the two pilots can alternate duties during the mission with one monitoring the aircraft while the other cooks a meal, uses the onboard restroom, or even sleeps. The B-2 has a small kitchen, bathroom, and a cot.

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Twenty-one B-2 Spirits have been produced in the last 25 years, and not one plane has ever come under enemy fire during the 14,000 sorties covering 75,000 flying hours since. The only loss occurred in February of 2008, when the Spirit of Kansas crashed during takeoff. No other US aircraft has such an impressive safety record.

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Each  of the 21 B-2s were given a formal name and an ID code, such as AV-21 Spirit of Louisiana. All of them have “Spirit of” in the name. The name is painted on the outside of the landing gear doors. All but one of the 21 B-2s are still in operation. The Spirit of Kansas was destroyed in a crash upon takeoff. The Spirit of Washington was damaged in an engine fire but was repaired and is still in operation. There is a single mock-up in the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Next week: a missile so terrible it averaged 1.34 kills per missile.

Northrop B-2

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Plane of the Week #17: Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit

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