While doing research on the Northrop Grumman B-2, we came across this story from Rebecca Grant’s 2001 book The B-2 Goes to War, about the stealth bomber’s combat debut during the 1999 Kosovo War. During a typical mission the bomber has to refuel four times. The first and last refueling occur over the U.S. East Coast, and are usually done by Air National Guard Units from Alabama, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.
Across the USA the news media was just breaking word that the B-2s were flying 30-hour missions to Kosovo. “Going east on my first mission, we hook up with a tanker, they’re out of Pittsburgh or somewhere,” said Colella. Coming back home, for refueling number four, they encountered the exact same tanker crew—a calendar day later. “The boom operator goes, ‘Hey, we refueled some of your buddies last night,’ and we say yeah, that was us. The boom operator couldn’t believe it. Give us your tail number, says the boom operator. This is standard procedure, so they can charge the B-2 for the gas; he notes it down and realizes that yes indeed, this was the very same B-2 he had refueled a day earlier. ‘Wow, you guys have been flying for 20 some hours!’ The boom operator teases them: when we got done with you, we went home, went to bed, cut the grass, took the kids to school, came back. Seriously, the tanker crew wants to know: how many guys do you have in the cockpit? Are you augmented 50% or 100%? There are just two of us, Colella says. Dead silence. Then the boom operator says, ‘You guys need a better union.’”
To read more about the B-2, look for Ultimate Aircraft, our upcoming special issue (on sale February 28) featuring more than 100 pages on how U.S. aerospace engineers developed stealth, speed, agility, and electronics to invent the ultimate combat aircraft.