“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.”
“Bussiere encourages me to meet the supporting cast at Whiteman. “This is a $2.2 billion national asset, but it’s a static display without the airmen,” he says. “Every one of them is critical. We tend to concentrate on the two in the cockpit, but they stand on the shoulders of thousands of airmen.”
“That would be people like Airman Sergeant Andrew Jones and Airman John Hodge, who take time on a Friday afternoon to walk me around Dock 12 and its resident, Spirit of South Carolina. Hodge has dropped in from another dock to show me around; he’s the crew chief for Spirit of Ohio, one of two B-2s that flew to South Korea last spring for Foal Eagle exercise, a joint U.S.-South Korean exercise.
“Ohio is Hodge’s baby, more so even than the pilots who used it to bomb Libya in 2011, because pilots hop readily from airplane to airplane. Jones is also a plane-hopper, since he specializes in electronic troubleshooting. Those troubles include learning that long-ago parts contractors have gone out of business, and wires with embrittled insulation need replacing. Whiteman shares the wiring restoration work with Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, where the B-2s go for a complete overhaul at seven-year intervals. At any given time, three or four B-2s are at Palmdale and not “combat coded.”
“Jones points out dark gray screws that line one panel over our heads. These are stealthy screws, he says: “There’s a book just on how to remove ’em.” In all, a B-2 mechanic’s bookshelf holds more than 1,000 Technical Orders; according to Hodge, a typical job requires pulling out 10 books, whose cross-referenced directions must be followed exactly.
“Hodge shows me the small, diamond-shaped panels in the wing, into which antennas and navigational lights retract whenever the airplane goes dark. The airplane carries no pitot tubes (too obvious on radar); to check airspeed, the pilots use static ports set flush into the skin.
“In time of war, inattention to tiny dents and dings—a bird strike on a leading edge, a misfitted panel—could give the whole show away. A tight fit between the skin and the hatches is so important to stealth that the edges of those doors are like machete blades (see “Applied Stealth,” How Things Work, p. 44). One of the first jobs of a maintainer after parking the aircraft is to slip red plastic guards on the landing gear and bomb bay doors, like knife sheaths.
“Hail, birds, and barely visible defects: All are reminders that what Rebecca Grant calls the “stealth game” is a matter not of inches but of millimeters. Technicians care for their exotic charges with exquisite exactness because the newest B-2 is 13 years old, while the Russian radar sets, air defense computers, and supersonic missiles available to any potential adversary are superior to those that existed when the B-2 was designed and tested.
“But the biggest concern for a B-2 pilot over enemy territory is enemy fighters, “because you can’t plan for them,” says Eric Single, who flew the first night over Kosovo. In The B-2 Goes to War, Grant quotes Single: “The worst thing in the world would be to be visually acquired by a fighter, whether by mistake or by design.” At that point, he says, “you are kind of out of luck.” The B-2 carries no defensive weapons.