Why the B-2 Bomber Is Such a Badass Plane

There are many legends, myths, and tales about the iconic and still-mysterious B-2 stealth bomber. The following one is actually true.

On April 8, 1999, Major Tom Bussiere looked out at the ink-black night sky from his mission commander’s seat of the B-2 stealth bomber. While contemplating his future (at what altitude remains classified), Bussiere saw flashes of lightning far below, rippling through the massive thunderstorm clouds that filled the entire horizon. It had been a long flight to enemy airspace—14 hours nonstop—and an even longer last few months. The B-2 pilots and their maintainers had been told to expect a bombing campaign of two or three nights at the start of the Kosovo War. This was their third month of round-the-clock operations.

And now, a very dangerous mission awaited.

For the first time in history, two B-2 bombers were sent to penetrate enemy airspace in wartime without any Allied support aircraft to help. The weather over Yugoslavia was chaotic, but critical targets had to be hit. For the B-2 pilots, flying at high altitude above the weather and dropping bombs was one thing, but avoiding enemy radar and aircraft was quite another. The B-2 wasn’t invisible to radar or the naked eye—it was just much harder to find and track.

“The B-2 was futuristic—and downright sinister.”

Just 12 days earlier, an enemy surface-to-air missile shot down a U.S. F-117, a fighter that shared similar stealthy qualities as the B-2, in the same airspace. The good news was that the two black jets had ultra-secret low-observable stealth technology and a combat load of smart bombs called Joint Directed Attack Munitions (JDAMs). The bad news was that by design, they had no defensive weapons of any kind and they didn’t have enough speed to outrun enemy surface-to-air missiles or fighters. The pilots were surely dead if discovered and tracked down by the enemy air defense network or an enemy MiG-29 fighter.

Bussiere turned his head away from the stormy night and looked at his fellow warfighter in the left seat of the B-2. He spoke quietly over the intercom with focused determination. “Weapons check complete, let’s go, it’s game time.” The other pilot nodded in agreement. Bussiere reached forward with his gloved left hand and pushed the “PEN” (penetrate) button on the instrument panel dashboard edge, which automatically configured the jet to maximum stealth mode. The four pilots in the two jets began to prep for combat, securing their pistols, donning their survival vests, and rechecking their ejection seats.

They were ready for the moment, but knew they would need every bit of luck they could get tonight. Utterly alone, yet unafraid, they flew the two giant bombers into the battle, feet dry in enemy territory.

A Reveal That Shocked the World

In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, the B-2 flies over Edwards Air Force Base on August 14, 2003 over California. At the time, the B-2 Global Power Bomber Combined Test Force dropped two newly upgraded 5,000-pound GBU-28 bombs for the first time.U.S. Air Force//Getty Images

It’s hard to fully encapsulate the shock that the public experienced during Northrop Grumman’s initial announcement and display of the B-2 bomber on November 22, 1988. The B-2 was futuristic—and downright sinister. While there had been flying wing designs in both Germany during WWII and in the U.S. after the war (also built by Northrop), neither really resembled the giant black jet in anything other than basic shape.

The designers also must have had a sense of humor and appreciation for one particular movie—you can see that by looking head-on at the jet. While we’ll likely never officially know if Northrop’s B-2 designers were big fans of the 1977 blockbuster movie Star Wars and its anti-hero Darth Vader, the cockpit shape is a virtual identical copy of Vader’s helmet.

The stealth bomber design team, including Armenian-American aircraft designer Hal Markarian, hand-drew the first sketches for a “Configuration Study” of the B-2 in June 1979. They were largely unknown to the outside world, and didn’t get out much during the heady years when they drafted plans for the now-iconic jet. But one thing is for sure: the otherworldly and revolutionary bomber that resulted from those efforts was pure science fiction, galactic evil, and Pax Americana combined in one earthly weapons system.

Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the early days of the program. After the worldwide sensation generated by its announcement, the future of the B-2 plunged into darkness.

The Bomber That Almost Wasn’t

In the early 1990s, the futuristic jet was close—razor thin—to being completely cancelled. The B-2 bomber’s No. 1 target, the Soviet Union, began dissolving in 1988, and a few years later, the socialist state had melted into pieces. At its collapse, the U.S. tried pounding swords into ploughshares; that left the B-2, one of the most expensive targets in the Department of Defense (DOD), on the chopping block. In 1992, even Republican President George H. W. Bush tried to kill the B-2 program.

Instead of being outright canceled, the B-2’s numbers were severely reduced. Instead of the initial order of 132 bombers, the DOD only ordered 20. Because of this, the B-2 is the most expensive aircraft in the world, costing $2.2 billion per jet. The flock may have been culled, but it would survive.

Fast forward to 1999, when Bussiere’s two crews were in Yugoslavian airspace with a formidable air defense system below them. Since the B-2 reached initial operational capacity (IOC) in 1997, everyone in the program was itching to fight, shake the “airshow queen” moniker, and show the world what the super-secret bomber could do in combat. The Kosovo War offered that opportunity.

While the B-2 bomber was initially designed for deep penetration into the Soviet Union to drop nuclear gravity bombs, it was additionally configured in the mid-1990s to include a conventional bomb-drop capability of 20 tons—a combat load heavier than either the B-1 or the legendary B-52 bomber could carry.

As Whiteman Air Force Base in Johnson, Missouri hummed with activity, key players began prepping the stealth bomber for war as part of the upcoming NATO air campaign against Serbia. The maintainers fully understood how to care for the radar absorbent materials (RAM) on the jet; planners knew how to precisely maximize the low observable qualities of the jet to navigate the safest path through a heavy air defense system; and pilots understood the demands of 30-plus hours of non-stop flight, including multiple refueling missions.

Utilizing Joint Direct Attack Munitions for the first time in history during the Kosovo War, the B-2 struck devastated Serbia, even despite the worst weather. According to Rebecca Grant, author of the book The B-2 Goes to War, nearly 4,000 sorties were cancelled in the 78-day NATO bombing campaign due to poor weather conditions—but not the B-2 ones.

The stealth jet flew so high that it wasn’t generally affected by weather, and it dropped its bombs with stunning precision through the clouds, wind, and rain. According to the U.S. Air Force, the B-2 was responsible for destroying 33 percent of the Serbian targets in the first eight weeks of the U.S. involvement in the Kosovo War. After 78 days, the war was over when the Serbians capitulated.

The B-2’s combat debut was stellar, but everyone in the program knew it had to get even better.

The B-2 Meets the 21st Century

Northrop Grumman is currently updating B-2 cockpits by “replacing the cathode ray tube monitor-based subsystem,” according to the company.USAF//Getty Images

From the B-2 bomber’s first flight in 1989 to its first combat missions in 1999, the contents inside the bomber with the two crew members was largely a mystery; Northrop Grumman had released only a single official photograph of the flight deck instrument panel in the history of the program up to that point.

That photograph revealed largely 1970s and 1980s analog technology. It would take years—and constant and unrelenting development—for the jet’s internals, revolutionary shape, and coatings to catch up to what we now recognize in the B-2. With a fleet of only 20 airplanes today, upgrades are constant, and Northrop has stripped each jet inside and out at least once in their careers, refitting them with the newest technology available.

Among the upgrades are more advanced radar absorbent materials; digital systems and software; updated avionics; and enhanced combat capabilities.

“Northrop Grumman continues to partner with the U.S. Air Force to further advance the effectiveness and viability of the B-2 Spirit. Ongoing improvements to Low Observable and Mission Systems on the aircraft will continue to expand the availability and capability of the platform,” Shaugn Reynolds, vice president and B-2 program manager for Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems, tells Popular Mechanics. “One item we are currently modernizing is the cockpit, by replacing the cathode ray tube monitor-based subsystem.”

But the bomber’s shape and constant tech upgrades aren’t the true secret of the jet; I’m a civilian with no security clearances, and I know only one “secret” about the legendary program. It’s not classified, but it has never before been told.

The Most Experienced Pilot Cadre

So few pilots have ever flown the B-2 that each person who does so is awarded a “Spirit” number, denoting the order in which they flew the airplane. I became “Spirit 691” when I had the honor of becoming the first person in history, civilian or military, to both fly and film aboard the aircraft.

I also flew a 24-hour mission in the B-2 simulator, a flight required to become a B-2 pilot. These experiences have given me the opportunity to meet and gain a unique insight into the hidden heroes of the B-2 program—the workers who build her, maintain her, and fly her.

“B-2 pilots are only limited by their vision, drive, and preparation. The jet doesn’t care who you are.”

One of the early Spirit number pilots, for instance, shared some non-classified (but vital) facts about the highly insular B-2 culture. Like virtually every B-2 pilot, he prefers anonymity, so we’ll call him “Shadow.”

“Here’s the real secret to the stealth bomber,” he tells Popular Mechanics. “The B-2 pilot cadre is without question the most widely experienced and diverse in the entire military for a very, very specific reason. We actively seek out pilots from every aviation platform in the military—even the other services—because we integrate the B-2 with those aircraft and their capabilities so intimately.”

✈︎ B-2 Bomber: By the Numbers

Virtually everything about the B-2 program has been a secret since its inception; here’s a brief look at the jet—by the numbers—as gleaned from public sources.

•Total aircraft: 21

Twenty were initially combat-coded. One ground test-bed airframe, never meant to fly, was converted into a flyable combat-coded aircraft in 1996, bringing the total to 21. A second ground testbed aircraft is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. One aircraft was lost in an accident in Guam in 2008. Both pilots ejected and survived. Twenty are still in service today.

• New B-2 pilots produced during their milestone 100th pilot training class: 4

They are Spirits No. 745, No. 746, No. 747, and No. 748, who join over 500 trained combat qualified pilots who came before them. The remainder “other” fliers include test pilots, an astronaut, exchange pilots, maintainers and distinguished visitors.

• Spirit number holders with the surname Smith: 6

Even with the remote likelihood of ever flying the B-2, your chances might be increased if this is your last name. Then again, it is one of the most common last names in the U.S.

• There have been more NASA astronauts than B-2 pilots.

• Two fathers, and then their sons, have flown the jet.

• Four couples (where both husband and wife are B-2 pilots), have flown the jet.

• A person is more likely to be crushed to death by a soda machine than to fly a B-2.

The black jet, he explains, even with its amazing technology and low observable qualities, will take you only so far. With the notable exception of the Kosovo War sortie, the aircraft almost never flies alone. Instead, it flies in enormously complex and layered strike packages among many different types of aircraft with varied roles during a mission.

Pilots’ previous experiences coming into the B-2 cockpit fully reflect that approach. “We have former bomber, fighter, and attack pilots, as well as tanker, air-lifter, reconnaissance, command and control, helicopter, and UAV pilots,” Shadow says. They may be highly experienced pilots or even recent graduates from military flight school. “We have Spirit pilots who were former navigators, weapons systems operators, maintainers, security forces, and even one from acquisitions—we need them all.”

The B-2 pilots I met when I flew the jet with Spirit No. 606 were a disparate set of flyers—all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, genders, and ethnicities. I asked Shadow about that, and the intensity of his response told me everything I needed to know about the tight B-2 culture.

“Look,” he says with firmness, “B-2 pilots are only limited by their vision, drive, and preparation. The jet doesn’t care who you are. We seek professionalism and humility in our corps, not gender or color. For example, while it’s gratifying to see the nation and the military celebrating Black History Month each year, the B-2 community has been doing that since the 1990s.

“It’s the same with the current and much-needed effort to highlight females in the military—for the last 20 years, the B-2 community has produced at least ten female pilots, and they are all on the ‘combat shooters’ list. All of them,” Shadow continues. “There is no glass ceiling here. It’s simply and absolutely all about true combat capability. We all carry the pride and the spirit (with the coveted B-2 coin) for the men and women who conceived and manufactured, maintain, and fly this combat-proven badass B-2 aircraft!”

Why the B-2’s Future Is Bright

A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber proceeds to an undisclosed location after completing a mission over Iraq, March 27, 2003.USAF//Getty Images

When the Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman the new B-21 Raider contract, it was assumed that the existing bomber fleet—comprised of the B-1, B-2, and B-52—would be dramatically decreased or cut altogether. Not true. While the B-1B fleet, flown hard in the Global War on Terror, appears headed for the earliest retirement, the Air Force has prioritized significant upgrades for the B-2 and B-52. Both jets will be armed with both conventional and nuclear-tipped payloads when Raytheon’s LRSO (Long Range Stand Off) missile comes online.

The B-2 is also receiving more than $1 billion in upgrades in the coming years for its unique low observable qualities and technology to assure that all 20 airframes will fly well into the future, while the B-21 reaches initial (and then full) operating capability.

It also doesn’t hurt that, since the inception of the program and through multiple combat missions both known and unknown, no surface-to-air or air-to-air missile has ever been fired at a B-2. So there’s a pretty good chance that the stealth bomber will survive until the next generation is ready to take over.

Completing the 30-Hour Mission

Back to our four pilots and their grueling flight over the Atlantic in April 1999. The two-ship formation of B-2s had already gotten their feet wet, heading back west-bound across the Atlantic Ocean on the historic night when they flew into combat alone over Kosovo—but the completion of their top-secret, 30-hour mission was still hours away.

Because all of the other combat sorties scheduled for that night were cancelled due to inclement weather, Bussiere retargeted all 16 of his jet’s bombs to cover planned F-117 targets, and every weapon was dropped accurately with devastating results.

Upon returning into American airspace, Air Traffic Control came over the radio with a short, professional message: “Welcome home gentlemen.” All four B-2 pilots from that mission were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), which was established in 1926 and is America’s oldest military aviation award. It is awarded “to any officer or enlisted person of the Armed Forces of the United States who shall have distinguished themselves in actual combat in support of operations by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

A distinguished award for not only distinguished pilots, but a hell of a distinguished bomber.