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The Secret of Stealth, part 2; RAF Fairford, July 17, 2004

The B-2A Spirit at the RIAT 2004; Text and Photograph's by Alex van Noye

Besides the Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk, also the Northrop B-2A Spirit was present at the RIAT 2004. The aircraft made a fly-by only. The story of this extraordinary plane, which is not seen every day, started in the early 70s. This massive aircraft is known as the Northrop flying wing with a lifting body.

The Northrop B-2A Spirit stealth is an American intercontinental bomber for long distances. The B-2 Spirit can carry conventional and nuclear weapons. The aircraft has a unique shape making it virtually invisible to radar. The USAF planned initially to buy a big series of these stealth bombers from the manufacturer Northrop. Only 21 of these aircraft were purchased at the end of the Cold War at the beginning of the 90s. The price of one single stealth bomber raised due to high development costs to over 2 billion Dollars. The current home base of the B-2 Spirit is Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri; maintenance takes place at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. The USAF started the search for a successor of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress in the mid-70s. Initially, the B-1 and B-70 program were started, but these planes were cancelled after a few years. The B-70 was designed to fly at high altitude over enemy territory, while the B-1 would operate at very low levels. This made both aircraft easy victims for SAM missiles and other ground fire. Stealth aircraft technology was developed in the mid-70s to protect aircraft against enemy fire. The idea was to build an aircraft with an airframe that would deflect and absorb radar signals. The aircraft would be invisible on the enemy radar with the help of this technique. This eventually led to the development of the B-2 Spirit.

DARPA asked the U.S. aviation companies in 1974 how large the biggest possible radar cross section was to keep the aircraft invisible for radar. Initially, Northrop and McDonnell Douglas were selected for this project. Lockheed, however, had much experience with radar profiles through the construction of the SR-71 Blackbird. The use of composite materials was one of the most important factors for the development of a plane like this. An important improvement was the introduction of computer models which could be used in order to calculate the reflections of not only flat surfaces, but also curves. The first prototype of the project was made under the name Hopeless Diamond in 1975. The project was almost completed in the summer of

1975. Northrop won the first contract to build a test aircraft. The second round was won by Lockheed. The project led by Lockheed was called the Have Blue project which led to the F-117. Northrop worked into a different direction. The projects which led to the designs of the B-2 Spirit and the F-117 Nighthawk were split from this point. The project was stopped in 1976, because the military staff thought it was easier to design a conventional bomber. A stealth bomber is able to fly unpunished over Soviet territory, while a B-1 will enter the area as quickly as possible to attack its targets. The stealth bomber is therefore able to be stand-by over enemy territory and it can attack with nuclear weapons at any time where necessary. President Carter was aware of these developments in 1977. This was one of the main reasons why the B-1 project was eventually cancelled. After further studies and the success of the Have Blue project it was decided to continue with the development of a stealth bomber in 1978. President Reagan took the decision of Carter as a weak decision when it comes to defense. He decided to give also the B-1 project a new impetus.

The Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) project was started in 1979. The project was conducted in secret under the code name Aurora. After evaluating several companies, there were 2 teams in the race for the contract, namely; Northrop/Boeing and Lockheed/Rockwell. Both teams based their stealth bomber design on a flying wing principle. Northrop already had experience with flying wings with the earlier developments of the YB-35 and YB-49. The model of Lockheed had a small tail design. The design of Northrop/Boeing was chosen by the U.S. government on October 20, 1980. The Northrop design received the name B-2 Spirit since this event. The mission profile of the B-2 was changed from the mid-80s from high altitude bomber to low level bomber. This change meant that the entire ATP project was delayed with 2 years. The B-2 was shown publicly for the first time on November 22, 1988, at Palmdale Air Force Base, California. It was heavily guarded and the back of the plane was covered. The B-2 made its first flight on July 17, 1989, at Palmdale AFB. In 1984, Thomas Cavanaugh, who was an employee of Northrop, was arrested because he wanted to sell information about the B-2 to the Soviet Union. Cavanaugh was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was eventually released in 2001. The USAF planned to buy 165 B-2 Spirit bombers. Only 21 B-2A Spirit bombers were eventually built due to the increased cost and the development of the B-1B Lancer.

The first B-2 was delivered to the USAF on December 17, 1993 at Whiteman AFB, Missouri. The entire B-2 fleet is stationed at this airbase. The aircraft are there assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing. The B-2 achieved operational status for the first time on January 1, 1997. The B-2 was originally designed as a nuclear bomber. The B-2 Spirit is nowadays also used as a conventional bomber which is equipped with precision weapons. The B-2 has 2 internal bomb bays which are positioned next to each other. The B-2 can carry a payload of more than 23,000 kilogram. The B-2 can carry several weapon configurations, such as; 80× 500 lb Mk-82 bombs, 36× 750 lb CBU laser guided bombs, 16× 2000 lb bombs of the type of Mk-84, JDAM-84 or JDAM-109 and 16× B61 or B83 nuclear bombs. The first deployment of the B-2 was during the Kosovo War in 1999. 33% of the Serbian targets were destroyed by the B-2. The B-2 flew its mission straight from Missouri to Kosovo and back. The B-2 Spirit was the first aircraft which used GPS satellite guided JDAM bombs in a war scenario. These actions resulted in missions lasting more than 30 hours. In order to shorten the flight time, B-2s are often deployed at RAF Fairford in the UK. The B-2 has proved that stealth works. The aircraft will stay in active duty for the next decades. It is one of the back bones of the USAF Bomber Command.




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