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 4 of 6)
“Asked to compare flying F-16s to the B-2, Pita says the F-16 is more physically demanding, but B-2 combat missions leave the pilots exhausted: “There’s so much going on. The biggest challenge comes when you have to deviate from the plan. We build that into the training so when the shit hits the fan, [new pilots] can cope. So it’s not the first time they’ve seen something like that. But [during training], the worst impact was just me yelling at them.”
“When glitches arise during non-critical phases, it’s important that the pilot be trained enough, and confident enough, to work through them himself, says Pita. Or herself, given that the B-2 cadre includes three female pilots. (The total number of B-2 pilots is classified, but I have been told it’s about 80.) For example, if the other pilot is in the middle of a four-hour nap, it’s bad form to wake him without good reason. “When you’re halfway around the world and the other is in rest, and something comes up, you should be able to work it yourself,” Pita says. “It’s his time to rest.”
“For a second opinion on lessons from past operations, I spend an hour in the Mission Planning Cell with Pico. A lieutenant colonel, Pico transferred into the program from B-52s. He flew the B-2 in the Iraqi war, and accumulated 1,000 hours in it. He also has flown an extreme-duration mission in the simulator: 50 hours.
“Pico emphasizes that while the image of the B-2 may be that of a lone ranger, going into enemy territory alone and unafraid, it wouldn’t get far without support from a few non-stealthy aircraft: tankers from Air Mobility Command, B-52s that knock out radar-control centers, and support aircraft that jam enemy radar and blow it up with anti-radiation missiles. But that’s far less support than was needed in Vietnam, when one Linebacker II mission saw 60 B-52s accompanied by 101 support aircraft.
“Pico goes on to summarize upgrades to the airplane’s electronics suite and explains how the need arose. For one thing, he says, experiences from Kosovo through Iraq showed the need for better satellite communications. In 1999, messages went back and forth over high-frequency radio in the form of sparsely worded text, which could be retyped into the system to change targets in flight. After Kosovo, the Air Force fitted a laptop to each B-2 to provide an interface more like email, but that wasn’t the perfect solution either. He describes a mission in which he had closed his laptop before going into the combat zone, then heard from another B-2 crew nearby that he should refresh his messages because a late-breaking update on the target list had just come over the network. “If I hadn’t checked, we would have dropped just three bombs out of 16; the message added four more.”
“It was during Kosovo that the B-2 wing encountered its greatest challenges. That combat required the most lengthy and sustained operations (78 days), and the Slobodan Milosevic territory held the most dangerous anti-aircraft weapons. Serbian gunners had learned from Iraqi veterans of the 1991 Gulf war about using their radar and missiles to maximum effect, and how to avoid being destroyed by anti-radar missiles.
“According to the pilots I’ve spoken with, combat lessons and improved technology have made the B-2 more capable than ever, but the job of flying it is no easier. Additions over the last decade enable the airplane to gather and transmit information about the battlespace, taking advantage of the fact that the B-2 is the only manned platform that can fly where enemy radar and surface-to-air-missile defenses are up and running. Part of the B-2’s mission is mapping the state of the enemy’s air defense system by getting the enemy to turn on radars and missile batteries, especially on Night One.
““We’re constantly upgrading the system and avionics,” says Brigadier General Thomas Bussiere, a B-2 pilot who directed operations over Kosovo and is now commander of the 509th. “The pilots have weapon systems to manage already, and we put this [new equipment for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] on their shoulders too—and for a 36- to 38-hour mission. They’ve been transformed from stick-and-rudder pilots to system operators.”