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.

In a typical two-ship formation, B-1Bs fly a 1998 training mission near Meteor Crater in Arizona, one of the few holes in the ground bigger than a B-1 could make. (Ted Carlson/
Air & Space Magazine

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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 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.

Unlike its pilots, however, the B-1's ground crews have a decidedly mixed opinion of their complex, finicky, and trouble-prone charge. "It's a love-hate relationship," concedes Staff Sergeant Walker Grant, a Seventh Bomb Wing crew chief at Dyess. "It's a high-performance vehicle. You're always tinkering. Comparing what it takes to keep a B-1 in the air to, say, a C-130 is like comparing a NASCAR racer to a go-cart." On many Bone missions, it's standard procedure to keep a second aircraft standing by with engines running in case the primary aircraft has some last-second problem.

To keep glitches to a minimum, Dyess ground crews ritually rub certain spots on their B-1s before each takeoff. (Just which spot depends on the particular aircraft.) "I've never been in a culture as superstitious as Bone crew chiefs," admits one of them. Even when everything's working, about 90 man-hours of labor are needed to prepare a B-1 for a training sortie—double the number for a B-52.

Because of its very shaky start and high maintenance, the Bone had very low combat readiness rates during its early years on nuclear alert. The nadir came in 1990, when a series of engine fires grounded the entire fleet just before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Bone pilots watched in envy and disgust as the B-52s flew off to the Gulf and glory.

But even had its engines been reliable and its defensive avionics working, the B-1 simply had no role to play in the first Iraq war. It was strictly a nuclear bomber, never intended for limited conventional wars, and not even capable of dropping conventional weapons. "It was horrible," recalls Colonel Jeff Taliaferro, a Bone pilot at the time who later flew the second Desert Fox mission. "Most of us had never been in combat, and we really wanted to go. When the nation's at war, you want to be part of it. The whole B-1 crew force was very disappointed."

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