The B-2 is a long-range stealth bomber, capable of flying across the globe and back to complete missions in one continuous journey, completely undetected.
In the 1970s, the U.S. military wanted a replacement for the aging B-52 bomber. The Air Force needed a plane that could carry nuclear bombs across the globe, to the Soviet Union, in only a few hours. And the top brass wanted it to be nearly invisible to enemy sensors.
Northrup Grumman was tasked with the undertaking and spent $45 billion over ten years to come up with the final design which differs radically from conventional aircraft. A flying wing design eliminates a body or fuselage and stabilizers to provide lift to the craft as in conventional aviation, the B-2 is all wing.
This design increases efficiency by using one big wing for lift and also by eliminating drag produced by a tail and fuselage helping it to be able to fly long distances in a fairly short period of time.
The B-2’s stealth capabilities come from its flat, narrow shape and black coloration which help it fade into the night. During daylight, when the B-2 stands out against the blue sky, it can also be hard to figure out which way the plane is going. The minimal exhaust output ensures the B-2 doesn’t leave a visible trail behind it.
The plane’s shape also has no sharp, angled edges — every surface is curved in order to deflect radio waves and bounce them waves away at an angle.
The B-2 is also relatively quiet as the engines are buried deep inside the craft and it’s aerodynamic design helps with less need for power output.
The B-2 is specially coated to deflect radar. The composite material used in the B-2 bomber is specifically designed to absorb radio energy with optimum efficiency. Parts of the B-2, such as the leading edge, are also covered in advanced radio-absorbent paint and tape which have to be reapplied regularly. After every flight, repair crews have to spend many hours examining the B-2 to make sure it’s fit for stealth missions.
Exhaust also passes through cooling vents on top of the craft before flowing out of the rear ports reducing the infrared signature, since enemy sensors would most likely scan below the plane.
The B-2 was originally designed for nuclear bomb transport but is now a multi-role bomber, designed to carry conventional bombs in addition to nuclear munitions.
The craft is equipped with two computer controlled rotary launchers, housed in the center of the craft which carry conventional gravity bombs — or “dumb” bombs that are dropped on target — as well as precision guided bombs that seek out their target. The plane can carry about 40,000 pounds of munitions.
The ‘dumb bombs’ are actually guided by a sophisticated GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) system to help ensure accuracy on target.
One such munition is the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator which is a 30,000 lbs “Bunker Buster” which replaces the previously available and much weaker 5,000 lbs GBU-28 and GBU-37.
The B2 is not supersonic, meaning it does not break the sound barrier, with a top speed of 630 mph at 40,000 feet altitude, but it can go 6,900 miles (11,000 km) without refueling and 11,500 miles (18,500 km) with one in-flight refueling.
The four General Electric F-118-GE-100 jet engines each generate 17,300 pounds of thrust.
Similar to elevators and ailerons on a conventional aircraft, the B-2 has elevons which change the plane’s pitch (up and down movement) and roll (rotation along the horizontal axis). The elevons and rudders also control the plane’s yaw (rotation along the vertical axis).
Previous technological hindrances made flying wing aircraft difficult due to the stability problems that occurred in past attempts due to the lack of rear stabilizer affecting the yaw.
Computer technology in the 1980s changed that and enabled the B-2 to be built with a fly-by-wire system which enables the pilot to command the flaps by computer, rather than traditional mechanical means.
In addition to replacing the necessity for a conventional stabilizer, the computer system in the B-2 also handles an array of other capabilities including the plane’s attitude, munitions, instrument panels, and a flap which controls the ‘Gust Load Alleviation System” to counteract turbulence forces.
To prepare for the types of missions that would take them beyond an adversary’s border, B-2 crew training involves traveling from America’s heartland to the other side of the globe.
“After you do a few [long-duration flights], anything under 20 hours doesn’t seem like a big deal,” said Capt. Chris “Thunder” Beck, a former B-52 pilot who recently graduated from B-2 pilot training school told a reporter at Defense News during a visit to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
“My personal record is 33 hours for my longest duration, but you just really got to take it from a big-picture standpoint, what you’re trying to achieve — you and your crew — and that’s what you have to focus on. It helps the time go by,” Capt. Beck said.
The B-52 is flown by a five-person crew — two pilots, two navigators and one electronic warfare officer. On the B-2, all tasks are shared between two pilots, unlike the older B-52 which has a crew of five.
“You just have to identify what the crunch points are going to be. What’s going to be the most important thing to do?” said Capt. Mike Haffner, a B-2 pilot with the 13th Bomb Squadron, who manages the aircraft simulators.
“When you get started in that mission, [it’s important] to not get lulled into a false sense of security because you feel like you have 12 hours or more to get over to the target area,” he said.
Whiteman Air Force Base maintains a staff of doctors and physiologists that specialize in how protracted flying can impact the human body. These officials help new pilots learn techniques to improve their performance over long-endurance missions and update experienced pilots with new information about how to prevent fatigue.
“There is a way you can shift that circadian rhythm back and forth by getting the appropriate amount of sleep, shifting your sleep schedule and even modifying diet,” said Capt. Caleb James, a doctor with the 509th Medical Group
For especially long missions, James said doctors will prescribe medication “in the event that those members need that little bit of extra push to help them stay focused on the mission.”
“When you’re faced with a 24-hour mission, or a long-duration mission, you really get into the details of who is going to do what task, and how we’re going to manage our sleep,” she said. The timing of every task needs to be set in advance “so that we’re both prepared to be in the seat, ready to go, for all the air-refueling and the weapons activity, and then of course landing.”