The Bone is Back
Too trouble-prone for nuclear alert and sidelined in the first Gulf War, the B-1 is today the busiest bomber in the fleet.
- By David Noland
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
(Page 2 of 4)
The new Nixon administration, however, revived the strategic bomber design, renamed it the B-1, and selected North American Rockwell to build it. The bomber on Rockwell's drawing board was in every way different from a B-52: a highly maneuverable Mach 2.2 low-level penetrator packed with advanced electronic countermeasures. Its mission: a terrain-hugging, under-the-radar nuclear attack on Moscow. And the B-1 looked like a weapon of mass destruction.
Its blended wing/body design and sinuous fuselage, shaped by the area rule, cut supersonic drag. The variable-geometry wing swept forward to 15 degrees for takeoff and landing, and back to a dart-like 67.5 degrees for supersonic dash. Its advances included terrain-following radar that enabled hands-off flying as low as 400 feet in any weather. To relieve the structural stresses of low-level turbulence on the long slim fuselage, small canard vanes below the cockpit automatically swiveled in response to gusts. To stay within center-of-gravity limits during wing sweep or weapons release, an automatic fuel-balancing system rapidly redistributed fuel among various tanks. A complex Defensive Avionics System was intended to detect and jam enemy radars.
The first prototype B-1A flew in 1974. Initial flight testing proceeded smoothly, but the B-1 continued to stir controversy on Capitol Hill, where critics sniped at its mission philosophy and constantly escalating cost. But its backers, led by right-wing firebrand Congressman Robert "B-1 Bob" Dornan, had managed to spread the B-1 subcontractor pork among many Congressional districts, a tactic that helped keep the project alive—until once again, political change rocked the B-1 program. Jimmy Carter, riding a post-Vietnam wave of skepticism about military power and citing budget concerns, scrapped the B-1 in 1977 in favor of the air-launched cruise missile (and, unbeknownst to the public, the stealth bomber, then in the early planning stages). But Carter did allow the four B-1A prototypes to continue testing.
Then came the presidency of the hawkish, free-spending Ronald Reagan, who revived the program. The new B-1B was beefier and could carry 50,000 more pounds of bombs and more fuel. A simplification of its engine inlets and a coating of radar-absorbing material would cut the jet's radar cross-section by 90 percent. The new inlets' design limited top speed to Mach 1.25, but it was decided that stealth (or at least semi-stealth) trumped speed.
Even though testing at Edwards Air Force Base in California was barely half finished, the B-1B stood its first nuclear alert in 1986, at Dyess Air Force Base. The rush to duty had predictable results: Even as their price tags were rising past $250 million each—the most expensive warplanes in history at that point—the B-1s were plagued with teething problems. Engines failed. Fuel leaked. The ballyhooed radar-jamming system had an unfortunate tendency to disrupt the B-1's own offensive radar, prompting the Armed Forces Journal to award the bomber the mortifying title "World's First Self-Jamming Bomber."
For all its initial problems, though, the B-1 was loved by its pilots, who affectionately call it the Bone (for B-One). "Never call it a Lancer," one Bone jockey cautioned me. With a fighter-style stick control, a relatively snappy 40-degrees-per-second roll rate, afterburners for instant kick-in-the-pants power, and a generous 3-G combat maneuvering limit, the Bone flies more like a fighter than a bomber. During a ride in the left seat of the B-1 flight simulator at Dyess, I got a feel for the Bone's agility. A firm yank on the stick triggered a roll rate that left me dizzy.
At airshows, B-1s have done barrel rolls, maneuvers unthinkable in a B-52 or B-2. (Search youtube.com for "Inverted Bone.") Major Dave Arnold, a Bone weapons systems officer with the Seventh Bomb Wing at Dyess, smugly points out that the stealth bomber, for all its vaunted electronic gizmos, is limited to sedate 25-degree banks and typically flies programmed missions almost entirely on autopilot.
And of course Bone jocks are the only U.S. bomber pilots who can bust the Mach. A favorite B-1 combat maneuver in the Gulf is the "show of force" run, a low-level, full-afterburner flyby to let the bad guys know who's in the neighborhood. "It breaks some eardrums," says Arnold. "And it's a great morale booster for our guys on the ground." Even at subsonic speeds, a Bone at full afterburner is almost certainly the world's loudest aircraft.