The Stealth Bomber Elite

Fewer than 100 pilots climb the ladder to the B-2 cockpit

Crew chiefs from Whiteman’s 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and 131st Bomb Wing give a B-2 a complete inspection, required every 1,000 flight hours. (USAF / Senior Airman Nick Wilson)
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““We had an impending sense that something was going to happen,” he says. This was confirmed by a series of summons over a period of days: Study intelligence briefs; adjust work schedules for a long mission. Over at the weapons storage area, loaders were mating bombs with JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) guidance packages, then toting the one-ton bombs into the docks for loading. A day before the flight, crews studied the combat mission folder (a binder about two inches thick) and rehearsed in the simulator.

“After the final—mandatory—crew rest period, it was launch day. If the pilots lived off base, in Warrensburg or Sedalia, their family members dropped them off at the base, stretching out family time a little more. At home, each family had an envelope of personal thoughts from the pilot marked for opening in case of mishap.

“Airmen loaded the gear that Pita and mission commander “Spaghetti” would need in the airplane: a sleeping bag, extra clothes, survival kit, folding cot, snacks and sandwiches, bottled water, plenty of piddle packs to avoid overfilling the toilet bowl, and lots of Diet Cokes for Pita.

“Across the ramp, maintainers and preflight crews were checking the aircraft, verifying that the bombs were talking to the computers, and preparing to start the engines well ahead of the crew’s arrival.

“Downstairs in the Mission Planning Cell, Pita and other pilots in the initial wave of B-2s bound for Baghdad heard final briefings, which alternated between small groups and all pilots. Each two-pilot crew also worked with a lead mission planner: “We looked over the situation and threats that might arise en route, including the Blue Line and weapons on board,” says Pita.

“The Blue Line is a key part of stealth tactics, and tactics are just as vital as the airplane’s design and the secret materials that reduce its radar cross-section. Uniquely crafted for each mission, the Blue Line stitches the assigned targets onto a flight path calculated to avoid the most dangerous enemy defenses. Pico, a pilot who flew in both Iraq and Kosovo, says that surviving a mission depends on intense planning before takeoff.

“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.”


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