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​Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan said the B-21 Raider is still on schedule. Staff illustration by Mike Tsukamoto.

The B-21 remains on schedule, and its first flight is planned to hop from its production site at Palmdale, Calif., to Edwards AFB, Calif., where the Air Force will stand up a new squadron to test the bomber.

Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan, speaking at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference on Sept. 16, said he was “happy” to report the progress the bomber is making. Northrop Grumman is building the B-21 in the same facility that built its predecessor, the B-2.

Northrop is expanding its Palmdale facility to support the B-21 and “other programs,” company officials told Air Force Magazine during a recent visit.

The Air Force expects the bomber’s first flight in December 2021, and Donovan said it will fly to Edwards for testing. The base will stand up the 420th Flight Test Flight Squadron to oversee testing of the bomber. The same squadron, which had been inactivated, oversaw testing of the B-2 and there the Raider will continue the “legacy of excellence,” Donovan said.

The squadron was inactivated in December 1997 after testing the B-2, and before being redesignated the 420 Flight Test Flight in 2001, which was then inactivated in 2007, according to an Air Force fact sheet.

Maj. Gen. Christopher Azzano, commander of the Air Force Test Center, told Air Force Magazine in a Sept. 16 interview the service is pulling together experienced testers with newer staff for a diverse B-21 workforce.

“We’ve got the normal … process in place, where you’re standing up a unit again that previously existed,” he said. “Is it going to be approved based on manpower and the obvious financial overhead? How will it be sized? … That is not official yet.”

Azzano said Edwards is “aggressively” standing up a workforce that combines existing expertise with fresh voices, who will get involved in the program early to speed the acquisition process.

“In the case of the B-21, you have a relatively new configuration that is going to have new systems,” he said. “The sooner we can get something fielded, the sooner we can build on that baseline.You might be talking about the airplane and a rudimentary sensor suite. You could be talking about the software.”

While the modern test enterprise plans to leverage models that show how different design tweaks could change aspects of aircraft programs like their supply chain, those models aren’t necessarily a substitute for live flights.

“What it does not generate is a high-fidelity digital model of the aircraft’s dynamics and performance and the way the systems will actually perform in the field,” he said. “You have to actually go out and get real-world test data to do that.”