“On Single’s flight, about a dozen Serb MiG-29s got airborne; NATO fighters shot down two.
And the early, most dangerous stages of a future conflict are likely to call in the B-2 in what pilots call a “no kidding” capacity. For example, the airplane usually finds its way into articles that speculate what the United States might do about nuclear centrifuges buried deep at Fordow, Iran, since it’s the only stealthy aircraft that can carry the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a precision-guided, 30,000-pound “bunker buster” bomb.
““I’m perfectly comfortable in executing missions anywhere in the world,” says Bussiere. Neither Iran’s shootdown of a stealth RQ-170 drone in December 2011 nor talk of late-model Russian anti-aircraft systems in the Middle East have raised concerns among the pilots. Ironically, all major damage so far has originated from unexpected side effects of the program’s own stealth measures: one bomber lost in 2008 due to a crash on takeoff in Guam (when tropical moisture got into a sensor used to calibrate airspeed and altitude), and one nearly lost to an engine fire in 2010 (when fire crews were unable to put foam on the B-2’s buried-in-the-wings engines). The latest casualty is still undergoing repairs, leaving the fleet size at 20.
“Though the B-2 can haul 80 quarter-ton bombs (or a smaller number of heavier bombs), that big a load hasn’t yet been tried in wartime, even in the most recent engagement: three B-2s attacking Libyan airfields on March 19, 2011. (The trio destroyed a series of hardened aircraft shelters near Sirte, a strike that almost completely wiped out Muammar Gaddafi’s air forces.) Along with more advanced situational awareness tools on board, the extra capability such a load would offer might overtax pilots and mission planners.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont once called the B-2 a “flying Fort Knox” (referring to the price of gold at the time). Since the 2008 crash, the bombers have become even more precious and the Air Force is paying for more upgrades: electronics for better survivability in enemy skies, and improvements in carrying out reconnaissance missions.
There will be no more B-2s rolling off the lines from Northrop Grumman, but the two more decades of service now projected for the B-2 should overlap with the next stealth bomber, now being designed: the Long Range Strike Bomber.
The shoulder patch of the 509th reminds me of a mission for which the B-2 was designed, one that we hardly hear discussed anymore. A mailed fist holds nuclear weapons, with a mushroom cloud in the background. (Though other aircraft types are approved to deliver nuclear weapons, only the 509th is authorized to use the symbolic cloud on its unit emblems.) B-2 pilots have helmets that can be given a white face shield with electronic eye shades (giving the wearer the look of a Star Wars storm trooper) to protect the wearer’s vision from a nuclear blast. And if the time comes, the pilots of the 509th will don their helmets, take off from Missouri, and fly a blue line toward the target.
James R. Chiles is the author of The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, a Social History of the Helicopter (Bantam Dell, 2007).