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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“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.

“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.


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