The Air Force has removed some of the secrecy that had veiled
the Northrop B-2 Stealth bomber. In ceremonies at Palmdale, Calif., on November
22, the rollout of the B-2 gave the public its first look at the flying wing,
which has been in development for nearly ten years.
Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge, Jr., one of the
principal speakers at the ceremony, said that the B-2 "represents a
stabilizing system in time of crisis and [is] an essential component of our
strategic nuclear force as we progress down the path of nuclear arms reductions"
and that the bomber "would promote deterrence."
The Secretary explained that the aircraft will begin flying
soon and that, since "we are not just going to fly [the B-2] at night or
in remote locations," the supersecret bomber would have been seen anyway.
Another, unspoken, reason for the rollout was to show Congress and the public
what they're getting for their money.
Security was tight, as many details about the program are
still classified. Attendance at the rollout was limited to 500 invited guests
(including thirteen members of Congress), approximately 2,000 employees of
Northrop and its subcontractors who work at Air Force Plant 42 (many of whom
had not seen the completed airplane), and sixty representatives from the
media. Two hundred plant and Air Force security guards, some tending police
dogs around the aircraft, were present.
The ceremonies were beamed live via satellite TV to other
Northrop and subcontractor plants, as well as to several Air Force
organizations that have already played, or will play, a part in the B-2's
Fifteenth Air Force band played an original composition
titled "Stealth Fanfare" as the gray-and-black airplane was towed out
of its hangar. Guests were kept almost 200 feet away and were not allowed to
see the aft end of the B-2. The aft end incorporates features that mask the
plane's infrared (or heat) signature and help it avoid detection by enemy
Knowns and Unknowns
"This aircraft combines all the best attributes of a
penetrating bomber—long range, efficient cruise, heavy payload, all-altitude
penetration capability, accurate delivery, and reliability and maintainability,"
said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch, who was also one of the
speakers at the ceremony. "Added to that is the greatly enhanced effectiveness
and versatility provided by its Stealth characteristics."
The B-2 will have a crew of only two, but there are
provisions for a third crew member if needed "for whatever reasons,"
said Secretary Aldridge. The cockpit is believed to have flat-panel displays
and is thought to be controlled by fighter-type sticks, rather than yokes or
All weapons carriage will be internal, with the stores
attached to the Boeing-built advanced applications rotary launcher. Elimination
of external carriage will greatly reduce drag and will also improve the B-2's
ability to avoid radar detection. The plane's primary payload will be nuclear
weapons (missiles and/or gravity bombs), but the B-2 will have a conventional
capability. The weapons payload is classified, but is known to be less than
the 134,000-pound designed payload of the B-1B.
The B-2, which looks something like a manta ray, has a
wingspan of approximately 172 feet. It is roughly sixty-nine feet long and
seventeen feet high.
The B-2's wingspan, interestingly, is the same as that of
the Air Force's first flying wings, the Northrop XB-35 and YB-49. These aircraft,
which first flew in 1946 and 1947, were regarded as ahead of their time. Both
encountered many problems in flight. Only a handful of these planes was built,
and both YB-49 prototypes eventually crashed. The B-2 is longer (by sixteen
feet) than the earlier flying wings.
The B-2's four engines are General Electric F118-GE-100s,
nonafterburning derivatives of the F110 used in the Air Force's F-16 and the
Navy's F- 14A (Plus) and F- 14D aircraft. The engine is in the 19,000-pound-thrust
class. The B-2 will be subsonic. The absence of a supersonic
"footprint" will enhance its ability to slip into a target area unnoticed.
The B-2's main aids in avoiding detection are its shape and
the materials it is made of. Since the B-2 has no sharp edges or vertical surfaces
exposed during flight, radar beams have nothing to bounce off.
Beams that do find the B-2 will be absorbed by the
aircraft's structure of what is believed to be carbon fiber or other composite
"The airplane is not invisible," noted Secretary
Aldridge. "It's just that radars can't see it until it's at close range.
And we don't anticipate the Soviets developing a [long-range radar] system in
the near future that will be able to see it. The B-2 has a very low [radar
cross section] that will allow it to get to any target it needs to."
Those targets include mobile missiles and high-value command and control centers.
The airplane has an in-flight refueling receptacle. The
flying wing shape is very fuel-efficient, however, so the B-2 will need less
tanker support than B-52s or B-1Bs do. Experts have estimated the unrefueled
range of the B-2 at between 6,000 and 7,500 nautical miles.
Although guests at the rollout were prohibited from viewing
the B-2's aft end, Aviation Week magazine
enterprisingly obtained aerial photographs without the Air Force's cooperation.
These photos show the trailing edges of the saw-toothed wing to be fitted with
long control surfaces that could act as elevons (elevator/ailerons) or
flaperons (flap/ailerons) for directional and lift control.
Asked if the plane made use of "fly-by-light," or
fiber-optic control linkages, which are impervious to electromagnetic
interference, Secretary Aldridge replied with an emphatic, "I'm not
going to answer that." The B-2's huge main landing gear doors may also
function as an empennage and provide some lateral stability for the aircraft,
especially in crosswind takeoffs and landings.
The B-2 Program
"The B-2 is the first computer-age airplane," said
Thomas V. Jones, Northrop's chairman of the board and chief executive officer,
"but the airplane wasn't built by computers.
And computers didn't replace people. Computers brought
people together and gave them the tools they needed to make the most of their
individual skills and imagination."
Indeed, the B-2 is the first aircraft to be designed and
built with a three-dimensional integrated database. This computer network electronically
linked Northrop's engineering, tooling, and manufacturing segments with
contractor logistics support, the Air Force, and the major subcontractors
(Boeing Advanced Systems Co., LTV Aircraft Products Group, and General Electric's
The other major subcontractors (Link Flight Simulation
Corp., Hughes Radar Systems Group, and Boeing Military Airplane Co.) and more
than forty known subcontractors (see box, p. 46) were also in constant contact
The network resulted in a ninety-seven percent success rate
for first-time fit of tubing, fluid systems, and mechanical systems. This compares
with a sixty percent success rate for a conventional design process. Northrop
invested more than $1 billion in the system, which includes 400 terminals and
thirty computer graphics rooms at the company's 3,300,000-square-foot Pico
Rivera, Calif., facility (where the B-2 was designed and engineered) alone.
The avionics system has already been tested for 44,000
hours. Engineering development testing took another 16,000 hours, and the
flight-control system has logged 9,000 hours on the test bench. Strategic Air
Command flight crews (the eventual users) have accumulated 6,000 hours in the
The airplane was also designed for high reliability and
maintainability. Crew chiefs and line maintenance troops were consulted about
access to components, and Air Force Logistics Command officials provided input
The B-2 was originally conceived as a high-altitude bomber,
and that created the problem of eliminating contrails, which would give the airplane's
position away to mankind's oldest sensor—the human eye.
At the rollout, though, Secretary Aldridge announced that
"the contrail problem has been solved, but I'm not going to tell you
how." Two possible solutions: a fuel additive, or a baffle system on the
rear of the aircraft that mixes cold air with the hot engine exhaust to
eliminate the formation of the telltale vapor trails.
Sometime around 1983, a reassessment of the threats the B-2
would encounter resulted in a redesign (mostly in the carry-through structure,
where the wing halves meet in the center of the aircraft and distribute
aerodynamic loads) to help the aircraft withstand the stress of low-level
flight. The redesign cost approximately $1 billion.
John K. "Jack" Northrop, the designer who
pioneered the flying-wing concept in the 1920s and built the first practical
flying wing (the N-1M) in 1940, was given a specially arranged briefing on the
B-2 before he died in 1981 at the age of eighty-five. One of Mr. Northrop's
Sons, John, his granddaughter, Janet Northrop, and a grandson, Jere Johansing,
were present at the rollout.
The first B-2's serial number (82-1066) indicates that money
to build the aircraft was authorized in FY '82. Construction was done on
"hard," or production, tooling, instead of the "soft"
prototype tooling. This method resulted in a cost savings, but the redesign of
the airplane necessitated changes to the tooling and delayed development.
"Costs for the program now will be determined and given
in the January budget submissions to Congress," noted Secretary Aldridge
at the rollout. "The [airplane's development and production] schedule is
causing some revisions [to the estimated costs]." The $36.6 billion cost
estimate for 132 aircraft has escalated by sixteen percent into the
neighborhood of $68.1 billion, or about $42.5 billion in 1981 dollars. That
figure works out to $516 million per plane in current dollars.
After the rollout, the B-2 was scheduled to undergo engine
and high-speed taxi tests and other final checkouts. The aircraft was scheduled
for its first flight about the time this article appears. It will make the
short hop from Palmdale to Edwards AFB, where it will undergo a full test
program. It will be flown by one Northrop and one Air Force pilot on that
The B-2 and the first five B-2As will be assigned to the
flight-test program at Edwards, with five of the aircraft eventually going to
the operational fleet. A 171,000-square-foot hangar and two additional
buildings have been built at the Air Force Flight Test Center to support the
B-2 test program.
The first operational B-2s will be assigned to Whiteman AFB,
Mo. Currently home to the 351st Strategic Missile Wing, Whiteman will
eventually receive thirty-four B-2s, which will be housed in individual
hangars. Over the past two fiscal years, $144.3 million in construction has
been authorized for the base, which has no fixed-wing flying mission. The B-2's
initial operational capability is expected to be reached by early 1993.
If the B-1B deployment schedule is an accurate guide, the B-2s
will likely be assigned to wings at four other bases, not yet identified. The
primary depot facility for the new bombers will be the Oklahoma City Air
Logistics Center at Tinker AFB, Okla.
The B-2 Industrial
The B-2 industrial team is headed by prime contractor
Northrop Corp. Boeing Advanced Systems Co., LTV Aircraft Products Group, and
General Electric Engine Group are key members of the contractor team. Other
major subcontractors include Link Flight Simulation Corp., Boeing Military
Airplanes, and Hughes Radar Systems Group.
The Air Force has also declassified a partial list of other
members of the B-2 industrial team. They include Abex Corp., Adams-Russell Co.
Inc., Allied Signal Corp., Arkwin Industries Inc., Bell Systems Engineering,
Collins Defense Communications, Continental Microwave and Tool Co., Eldec
Corp. E-Systems Inc., Fairchild Communications and Electronics Co. Fenwal Inc.,
G. E. Aircraft Control Systems Department, G. E. Instrument Products Operation,
Gull Inc., Hercules Inc., and Honeywell Inc.
Others are Kaman, Kearfott Guidance and Navigation Corp.,
Lockheed Corp., McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Co., Miltope Co., Moog Inc., OEA
Inc., Parker-Hannifin Corp., PDA Engineering, Raychem Corp. Raytheon Corp.,
Resdel Engineering Corp., Rockwell International Corp., Rosemount Inc., Sanders
Associates Inc., Smith Industries Aerospace and Defense Systems Inc.,
Sundstrand Corp., Teledyne, TRW Inc., Unisys Corp., United Aircraft Products
Inc., United Technologies Corp., Vaga Industries, Vickers Inc., and Whittaker
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag