Tue. Mar 2nd, 2021
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With its “flying wing” design that makes it virtually invisible to radar, the B-2 Spirit bomber is really a standout amongst navy planes — and likewise the world’s costliest, at over $2 billion per plane.

A product of the Cold War, it was initially designed to penetrate Soviet air defenses and carry each standard and nuclear weapons. But shortly after its first flight, over 30 years in the past in 1989, the autumn of the Berlin Wall ended the Cold War and no B-2 has ever flown inside Russian airspace.

Nevertheless, it has seen its fair proportion of fight. The first B-2 was delivered in 1993 to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the place the fleet relies and nonetheless operates, and its first operational use was throughout the 1999 Kosovo War.

One of probably the most refined flying machines in existence, the B-2 can attain a goal wherever on the planet and return to base, refueling in mid-air. No B-2 has ever been misplaced in fight.

“It is really one of a kind, completely unlike any other plane ever designed,” Rebecca Grant, a B-2 and aerospace skilled who has flown within the categorized airplane, stated in a telephone interview. “Seen from the cockpit, the flying wing is so distinctive. It is very special — more of a sentient being than just a regular airplane. Maybe that’s why all of the B-2s are rumored to have unique personalities and they’re often referred to as she.”

Early ‘flying wings’

The thought of designing a airplane as a flying wing — with no particular fuselage, a tail and different protuberances — is an early one in aviation, surfacing earlier than World War I in Germany and the Soviet Union. Towards the top of World War II, Nazi Germany constructed and examined the Horten Ho 229, a futuristic flying wing plane with rudimentary stealth options, to which the B-2 bears a placing resemblance. In the United States, any such design was pioneered by plane designer and industrialist Jack Northrop, whose first flying wing prototypes — in small scale and powered by propeller engines — took to the skies in 1940.

Northrop’s work culminated within the YB-49, his first jet powered flying wing design, in 1947. Far forward of its time, the challenge was held again by technical difficulties and rapidly scrapped. However, the work executed on the YB-49 was used to kickstart the B-2 program — the corporate that makes it was based by Northrop himself — and though the planes are a long time aside, they’ve many similarities, together with the very same wingspan.

A YB-49 prototype plane in 1950. Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group Editorial/Universal Images Group by way of Getty

Low Observable know-how

The B-2 is considered one of three strategic bombers at present in service within the US Air Force, together with the agile Rockwell B-1 Lancer, which first flew in 1974, and the gargantuan Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, a legendary plane from the 1950s that has been continually up to date ever since.

The B-52 first launched the thought of flying a bomber at very excessive altitudes, to make it more durable for anti-aircraft missiles to achieve it, whereas the B-1 tried the alternative: flying so low and quick that radar would have bother selecting it up. Neither technique was excellent nor proof against enemy hearth, and Cold War tensions had been calling for the final word nuclear deterrent: a bomber able to carrying atomic weapons whereas being just about undetectable by enemy air defenses.

A B-1 Lancer, a B-2 Spirit and a B-52 Stratofortress perform a flyover at Barksdale Air Force Base.

A B-1 Lancer, a B-2 Spirit and a B-52 Stratofortress carry out a flyover at Barksdale Air Force Base. Credit: David Wa / Alamy Stock Photo

This dream turned a actuality within the 1970s with the introduction of stealth, a set of applied sciences that make an plane troublesome or unattainable to identify for radar. “It was a Cold War product, but also a product of a big technological breakthrough in designing an airplane to be stealthy,” stated Grant.

“The mission of the B-2 was to elude Russian air defenses, both their surface-to-air missiles and their top-line fighter aircraft. And that’s still its mission today — to elude the best enemy air defenses wherever we find them.”

A B-2 is followed by two F-117s, an earlier stealth plane with a strikingly different design approach, dominated by flat panels and jagged edges instead of smooth curves.

A B-2 is adopted by two F-117s, an earlier stealth airplane with a strikingly completely different design method, dominated by flat panels and jagged edges as an alternative of clean curves. Credit: USAF/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To achieve this, the airplane features a vary of options, lots of them categorized, that masks it from view. “The first is the shape, which alters the radar reflection,” stated Grant.

Radar — an acronym for “radio detection and ranging” — was invented throughout World War II and works by sending an vitality pulse by means of the air and ready for it to bounce off objects corresponding to airplanes, after which come again. The depth and angle of this reflection provides the scale and placement of the goal.

Unlike different plane, the B-2’s flying wing design does not have any massive vertical shapes, corresponding to a tail, for radar waves to bounce off. In reality, its clean floor is designed to scatter radar waves fully, so that just about none return to the supply, making the airplane seem as small as a fowl. Ironically, the ideas used for this had been first uncovered by a Russian physicist, Pyotr Ufimtsev, in a 1962 e-book which the Soviet Union deemed of no nationwide safety worth, thus clearing it for publication.

“There are also radar-absorbing coatings and materials, and you can’t see its engines because they are tucked away in the aft section, to avoid producing any heat signature,” Grant stated. A warmth signature is a lifeless giveaway {that a} airplane is within the sky, and the B-2’s designers went to lengths to obfuscate it, even utilizing the identical form of heat-absorbing tiles that protected the Space Shuttle throughout re-entry, positioned close to the engine exhaust.

An on-board system alerts the crew if the airplane is creating contrails — the vapor trails that type when ice crystals coalesce round plane exhaust gases — permitting them to alter altitude. Finally, the B-2 may be very quiet, and may solely be heard as soon as it is handed overhead.

Never-before-seen video of B-2 Spirit stealth bomber

These options, recognized collectively as low observable know-how, should not all the time in operation, however are activated when the airplane must grow to be invisible. Among different issues, pilots should press a button within the cockpit marked “PEN,” to penetrate enemy defenses. “Just like any combat aircraft, when you’re near the threat you do a whole bunch of things to get ready to penetrate. They won’t tell you the whole procedure, but it’s true — they do stealth up when they come near the target area,” stated Grant.

Two days within the air

B-2 missions have lasted so long as 44 steady hours — corresponding to one flown in 2001 from Missouri to Afghanistan throughout operation Enduring Freedom — which is why there’s a flat house behind the cockpit the place one of many two pilots can relaxation, together with services to retailer and warmth meals, in addition to a rest room.

A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker.

A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber receives gasoline from a KC-135 Stratotanker. Credit: USAF/Getty Images North America/Getty Images

While no B-2 has ever been misplaced in fight — the airplane does not even have defensive weapons — one was destroyed in an accident in 2008, when it crashed shortly after takeoff from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam (the pilots ejected safely). Another B-2 was severely broken in a hearth in 2010 and sustained intensive repairs earlier than coming again into service.

All B-2s are named after a US state (besides two, “Spirit of America” and “Spirit of Kitty Hawk”) and are among the many most high-maintenance planes in existence, and tens of hours of servicing are wanted for every hour of flight. The delicate pores and skin of the airplane, which offers extra stealth, should be saved at cool temperature, requiring air-conditioned hangars that contribute to the excessive working prices.

The 21 B-2s that had been constructed additionally needed to bear all the prices related to this system’s analysis and growth, which might have been extra evenly unfold over a bigger variety of plane. “That made their sticker price upwards of $2 billion each — it would have been much more reasonable had they built 132 as originally planned,” stated Grant.

A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber named "Spirit of Alaska" at Whiteman Air Force Base.

A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber named “Spirit of Alaska” at Whiteman Air Force Base. Credit: USAF/Getty Images North America/Getty Images

The subsequent era

Because of the small fleet and its categorized applied sciences, the B-2 is a coveted airplane to fly, and just a few stathundred pilots have ever boarded one. “They have a very rigorous selection procedure, but one thing they place great value on is personality and compatibility — you have to be the right kind of person to fly those 40-hour missions with a two-person crew,” defined Grant.

“It flies like a regular plane, but it has some unique features. When you fly, you’re right up on the front edge, so the perspective is very different and it takes some real skill to refuel and to land.”

Through the years, the airplane has acquired upgrades to its flight programs, communications and weapons. It remains to be firmly a part of the US’s nuclear triad deterrent, together with intercontinental ballistic missiles primarily based on land and aboard submarines.

Its days, nevertheless, is perhaps numbered: the B-2’s successor is already in growth. Called the B-21 Raider, it is shrouded in secrecy and anticipated to debut someday after 2025. The new airplane will tackle the identical position as the present one, however will probably be designed making full use of the technological developments which have occurred for the reason that B-2 was first conceived, over 40 years in the past.

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By june

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