The Stealth Bomber Elite
Fewer than 100 pilots climb the ladder to the B-2 cockpit.
- By James R. Chiles
- Air & Space magazine, September 2013
USAF / Senior Airman Nick Wilson
(Page 3 of 6)
“After the briefings, it was time to “step out to the jet,” the Air Force way of saying that all preparations were complete (the pilots “stepped out” via vehicles). On Pita and Spaghetti’s arrival, the dock doors were open and computers and engines were running. It was time to go.
“One of the first jobs pilots have when heading off to war from Whiteman is to stay in touch with civilian air traffic control, all the way to the war zone. Stealthiness creates a risk of a midair collision with a civilian aircraft. The B-2 carries deployable radio antennas for navigation in civilian skies, along with strobe lights for visibility. All such gear retracts when the airplane “stealths up.”
Another thing B-2 crews do on the way to war is gulp fuel, taking up to 50 tons at a time in midair refueling sessions that last a half-hour or more. Flying to Iraq and back takes 38 hours, requiring at least four fill-ups by KC-135 or KC-10 tankers. When the airplane is at its ideal cruising altitude, refuelings take place about every six hours.
“Refuelings are entirely manual; depending on conditions like turbulence and clouds, they can be edgy, so both pilots must be awake and in their seats. Otherwise, when far out over the Atlantic, only one pilot need be in front. Did Pita and Spaghetti use crossword puzzles or games to stay alert, as (reportedly) some pilots have done? Pita says no: “There’s plenty to do, plenty to watch over while you’re in the seat. And if you’re not doing something, then you should be resting.”
“Rest isn’t always easy, particularly before a mission. The space behind the seats, about four feet wide by six feet long, is cramped and noisy. Still, rest is vital, Pita tells me. Standard equipment on every long-duration mission is a folding Army cot customized to fit the B-2’s floor space. It’s an official upgrade from the Walmart lawn chairs that some crews bought during the Kosovo war. “But the way you set it up was more of a pain,” Pita says, “so I just put my sleeping bag on the floor.”
“The close connection between crew rest and maintaining alertness during the B-2’s long missions was an important lesson from months of air operations over Kosovo. “We heard after Kosovo—anecdotally—that the pilots were so keyed up they couldn’t sleep,” says Pita. “Then after the adrenaline drained away, once they were off the target, they were exhausted. After that, we gathered some of the best experts on the subject and hosted a symposium at Whiteman. These were experts in sports medicine, nutritionists, some pretty famous.” In her book The B-2 Goes to War, Rebecca Grant recounts that during a post-strike refueling, one B-2 pilot felt he was so close to falling asleep at the stick that he asked the other pilot to take over.
“After a second refueling, over the Mediterranean, pilots heading for Iraq changed into desert-tan camouflage uniforms without name badges and donned survival vests. The vests would offer a backup to a larger survival kit that ejected along with the pilots.
“Pita declines to go into details, but according to other sources, preparing a B-2 for battle includes arming the bombs; climbing to combat altitude (which is classified); turning on ground-mapping radar so that as the airplane approaches the target area, the pilots can refine targeting coordinates; and, of course, “stealthing up.” As far as air traffic controllers could tell, somewhere outside the Iraqi border, Pita’s airplane vanished into the thin night air. Though they could catch brief glimpses of the airplane in action (such as when the bomb bay doors were open), enemy operators of surface-to-air missiles could not lock on. Throughout the Iraq war (and all other B-2 combat engagements), no missiles were launched at the bomber.