B-2 Spirit

The Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit is a multi-role stealth heavy bomber, capable of penetrating dense anti-aircraft defenses to deploy both conventional and nuclear weapons. B2s are operated exclusively by the United States Air Force. Because of its astronomical capital and operations costs, the project was politically controversial during its development and placement into service. In addition, the United States Congress scaled back initial plans to purchase 135 of the bombers. By the early 1990s the United States elected to purchase 21 of the bombers at US$737 million per aircraft. Total program cost averaged US$2.1 billion per airplane in 1997 dollars.

Though originally designed during the Cold War, the B-2 Spirit has been deployed in combat to drop bombs on Kosovo in the late 1990s, on Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom, and on Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2008, the program had its first crash incident since its inception in the 1980s. Featuring formidable design specifications, a two officer crew aboard the bomber can drop up to eighty 500 pound class JDAM "smart" bombs, or sixteen 2,600 pound B83 nuclear bombs in a single pass through extremely dense anti-aircraft defenses. The bomber has made prominent appearances at air shows since the 1990s, and has been the subject of espionage and counter-espionage activity.


The B-2 originated from the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) black project. The bomber program began in 1979. The Department of Defense first disclosed they were working to develop a stealthy bomber on 22 August 1980. The ATB competition was reduced to the Northrop/Boeing and Lockheed/Rockwell teams with each receiving a study contract for further work.

The Northrop/Boeing team's ATB design was selected over the Lockheed/Rockwell design on 20 October 1981. The black project was funded under the code name "Aurora". The Northrop design would receive the designation B-2 and name "Spirit". The bomber's design was changed in the mid-1980s when its mission profile was changed from high-altitude to low-altitude, terrain following. The redesign delayed the B-2's first flight by two years and added about $1 billion to the program's cost. An estimated US$23 billion was secretly spent for research and development on the B-2 in the 1980s. At the program's peak, 13,000 people were employed at a dedicated plant in Pico Rivera, Cal. for the plane's engineering and some manufacturing.

The first B-2 was publicly displayed on 22 November 1988, when it was rolled out of its hangar at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, where it was built. Its first public flight was on 17 July 1989. The B-2 Combined Test Force, Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California, is responsible for flight testing the engineering, manufacturing and development aircraft.

A procurement of 132 aircraft was planned in the mid-1980s, but this was later reduced to 75. Yielding to budgetary pressures and Congressional opposition, in his 1992 State of the Union Address, President George H.W. Bush announced total B-2 production would be limited to 20 aircraft. This reduction was largely a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which effectively rendered void the Spirit's primary mission.

In 1990, the Department of Defense accused Northrop of using faulty components in the flight control system. More recent issues with the jet have included cracks in the tail, and efforts to reduce the probability that the engines will suck birds into the jet intakes, damaging fan blades.

Northrop made a proposal to the USAF in the 1995 to build 20 additional aircraft with a flyaway cost of $566M. This reflects the projected per aircraft cost had the full order had been manufactured. The high development costs reflect the inefficiencies of separating design teams into different parts of the country as a counter-espionage measure, and as a political measure to create jobs manufacturing different parts of the plane in a variety of Congressional districts.

Other costs included the development of a computer aided design system which requires no paper (the first aircraft so designed), a totally computerized manufacturing control system (the first of its kind), and a computerized maintenance system to help crew chiefs.

In 1996, the Clinton administration, though originally committed to ending production of the bombers once the 20th aircraft was completed authorized the conversion of an early prototype test model to operational status at a cost of nearly $500 million.

Program costs

The program was the subject of public controversy for its costs to the treasury. In 1996 the General Accounting Office disclosed that the B-2 bomber "will be by far the most costly bombers to operate on a per aircraft basis" costing over three times as much as the B-1B (US$9.6 million annually) and over four times as much as the B-52H ($US6.8 million annually). A key reason for this cost is the extra care required to maintain the aircraft's stealthy properties, especially it's low-observable coatings and skin.

In September 1997, each hour of B-2 flight necessitated 119 hours of maintenance in turn. Comparable figures for the B-52 and the B-1B are 53 and 60 hours respectively. These maintenance requirements raise serious questions about the ability to deploy the B-2 overseas, where climate controlled hangars would be needed to protect the plane's stealthy skins. The cost of the B-2 program in 1994 dollars was reported at US$737 million production costs for the 21 A/C fleet. However, the total cost of the program with development, spare parts, and facilities averaged over US$2.1 billion per plane as of 1997 according to the B-2 program office.

Political opposition

While serving in Congress and as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee during the 1980s and 1990s, California Congressman Ron Dellums strongly opposed the program's origination and expansion. In 1997, Dellums, citing five independent studies consistent with his position, offered an amendment to that year's defense authorization bill to cap production of the bombers with the existing 21 aircraft. The amendment was narrowly defeated. Nonetheless, Congress never approved funding for additional B-2 bombers.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili and former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General Mike Ryan, were strongly opposed to the purchase of any additional B-2s, arguing that to do so would require unacceptable cuts in existing conventional and nuclear capable aircraft to pay for the new planes.


As with the B-52 Stratofortress and B-1 Lancer, the B-2 provides the versatility inherent in manned bombers. Like other bombers, its assigned targets can be canceled or changed while in flight, the particular weapon assigned to a target can be changed, and the timing of attack, or the route to the target can be changed while in flight. In addition, its low-observable, or "stealth", characteristics give it the ability to penetrate an enemy's most sophisticated defenses and attack its most heavily defended targets.

The blending of low-observable technologies with high aerodynamic efficiency and large payload gives the B-2 significant advantages over previous bombers. Its range is approximately 6,000 nautical miles (11,100 km) without refueling. Also, its low-observation ability provides the B-2 greater freedom of action at high altitudes, thus increasing its range and giving a better field of view for the aircraft's sensors. It combines GPS Aided Targeting System (GATS) with GPS-aided bombs such as Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). This uses its passive electronically scanned array APQ-181 radar to correct GPS errors of targets and gain much better than laser-guided weapon accuracy when "dumb" gravity bombs are equipped with a GPS-aided "smart" guidance tail kit. It can bomb 16 targets in a single pass when equipped with 1,000 or 2,000-pound bombs, or as many as 80 when carrying 500-lb bombs.

The B-2's stealth comes from a combination of reduced acoustic, infrared, visual and radar signatures, making it difficult for defenses to detect, track and engage. Many specific aspects of the low-observability process remain classified.

The B-2 represents a further advancement of technology exploited for the F-117. Pyotr Ufimtsev, whose theoretical work made the F-117 and B-2 possible, was hired by Northrop at one time. Additionally, the B-2's composite materials, special coatings and flying wing design (which cuts down on the number of leading edges) contribute to its stealth abilities. The B-2 uses radar absorbent material and coatings that require climate-controlled hangars for maintenance. The engines are buried within the wing to conceal the induction fans and hide their exhaust.

The B-2 has a crew of two: a pilot in the left seat, and mission commander in the right. The B-2 has a provision for a third crew member if required in the future. For comparison, the B-1B has a crew of four and the B-52 has a crew of five. B-2 crews have been used to pioneer sleep cycle research to improve crew performance on long flights. The B-2 is highly automated, and unlike two-seat fighters, one crew member can sleep, use a flush toilet or prepare a hot meal while the other monitors the aircraft.

Operational history

The first operational aircraft, christened Spirit of Missouri, was delivered on 17 December 1993. The B-2 fleet is based at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Depot maintenance for the B-2 is accomplished by United States Air Force contractor support and managed at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Originally designed to deliver nuclear weapons, modern usage has shifted towards a flexible role with conventional and nuclear capability.

The prime contractor, responsible for overall system design and integration, is Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems Sector. Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon), General Electric Aircraft Engines and Vought Aircraft Industries, are members of the aircraft contractor team. Another contractor, responsible for aircrew training devices (weapon system trainer and mission trainer) is Link Simulation & Training, a division of L-3 Communications formerly Hughes Training Inc. (HTI). Link Division, formerly known as CAE - Link Flight Simulation Corp. Link Simulation & Training is responsible for developing and integrating all aircrew and maintenance training programs.


The B-2 has seen service in three separate campaigns. Its debut was during the Kosovo War or Operation Allied Force in 1999. It was responsible for destroying 33 percent of all Serbian targets in the first eight weeks, by flying non stop to Kosovo from its home base in Missouri and back. The B-2 first introduced the satellite guided JDAM in combat use. Since then, the aircraft has operated over Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In support of Operation Enduring Freedom the B-2 flew one of its longest missions to date from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri to Afghanistan and back. During the Iraq campaign, B-2s were temporarily operated from Diego Garcia. Later missions to Iraq launched from Whiteman AFB. This resulted in missions lasting over 30 hours and one mission of over 50 hours. In support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the B-2 flew 22 sorties from Diego Garcia as well as 27 sorties from Whiteman AFB and released more than 1.5 million pounds of munitions. The B-2's proven combat performance led to a declaration of full operational capability in December 2003.

The Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation 2003 Annual Report noted that the B-2's serviceability for FY03 was still inadequate, mainly due to maintenance on the B-2's Low Observable materials. The evaluation also noted that the Defensive Avionics suite also had shortcomings with pop-up threats. Despite these problems the B-2 reached full operational capability in December 2003. The B-2 maintained high mission capable rates for Operation Iraqi Freedom, dropping 583 JDAMs during the campaign.

Recent events

Noshir Gowadia, a design engineer who worked on the B-2's propulsion system, was arrested in October 2005 for selling B-2 related classified information to foreign countries. His trial was initially scheduled for 12 February 2008, but he received a continuance. In 1984 a Northrop employee, Thomas Cavanagh, was arrested for trying to sell secrets apparently smuggled out of the Pico Rivera plant to the Soviet Union and was eventually sentenced to life in prison.

The USAF has funded a project to upgrade the B-2s weapon control systems so new weapons can be used, including weapons intended to hit moving targets.


Accidents and incidents

On 23 February 2008, B-2A, 89-0127, Spirit of Kansas, of the 393rd Bomb Squadron, 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, crashed onto the runway shortly after takeoff from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. The crash of the Spirit of Kansas, which had 5,100 flight hours, was the first ever for the B-2. The crew attempted to save the bomber but, as the port wing began to hook the ground, they ejected and survived. The aircraft was completely destroyed, an estimated loss of US $1.4B.

No munitions were on board because it and three other B-2s were returning to Whiteman Air Force Base from a temporary deployment to Guam. At Guam Naval Hospital, one pilot was evaluated and released, while the second remained hospitalized. A B-2 already in the air was called back to Andersen following the crash, where it and the other B-2s were grounded until an initial investigation into the crash was complete. Six B-52s of the 96th Bomb Squadron, 2d Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana were deployed to replace the B-2s. Chief of Air Combat Command General John Corley stated that the B-2 "rotated early, rotated excessively, stalled, and then dragged the left wingtip". The pilots then ejected and the aircraft ran off the side of the runway and burned.

The commander of the 509th Bomb Wing, Brig. Gen. Garrett Harencak, followed up on the incident by temporarily suspending flying operations for all 20 remaining B-2s to review procedures. Harencak termed the suspension a "safety pause" and stated that the B-2s would resume flying if called upon for immediate operations. The B-2 returned to flight on 15 April 2008.

The findings of the subsequent investigation stated that the B-2 crashed after "heavy, lashing rains" caused water to intrude into skin-flush air-data sensors, which feed angle of attack and yaw data to the computerized flight-control system. The water distorted preflight readings in three of the plane's 24 sensors, causing the flight-control system to send an erroneous correction to the B-2 on takeoff. The B-2 quickly stalled, became unrecoverable, and subsequently crashed. The sensors in question measure numerous environmentals, including air pressure and density, for data to calculate airspeed, altitude and attitude. Because of the faulty readings, the flight computers determined inaccurate airspeed readings and incorrectly indicated a downward angle for the aircraft, which contributed to an early rotation and an uncommanded 30-degree pitch up and left yaw, resulting in the stall.

Aircraft on display

Because of its cost, rarity, and combat value, no production B-2 has been placed on permanent display. However, B-2s have made periodic appearances on ground display at various air shows.

In 2004, one of the test articles (s/n AT-1000) built without engines or instruments for static testing was placed on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. The test article had been used for structural testing, and after passing all planned tests, pressure was applied until the right wing broke off at 161% of specification. The Museum's restoration team spent over a year reassembling the fractured airframe.

From 1989 to 2004, the South Dakota Air and Space Museum located on the grounds of Ellsworth Air Force Base displayed the 10-ton (9.1 tonne) "Honda Stealth", a 60% scale mock-up of a stealth bomber, which had been built by North American Honda in 1988 for a national automobile campaign. Although not an actual replica of a B-2, the mock-up was close enough to create a stir that Honda had cracked national security, as the B-2 project was still officially classified in 1988. Honda donated the model to the Museum in 1989, on the condition that the model be destroyed if it were ever replaced with a different aircraft. In 2005, when the museum received a B-1 Lancer for display (Ellsworth being a B-1 base), the Honda Stealth was cut up.

Specifications (B-2A Block 30)

Later avionics and equipment improvements allow B-2A to carry JSOW and GBU-28s as well. The Spirit is also designated as a delivery aircraft for the AGM-158 JASSM when the missile enters service.

List of B-2 bombers

Air Vehicle No. Block No. USAF s/n Formal name Status
AV-1 Test/30 82-1066 Spirit of America 7/14/00 - Active
AV-2 Test/30 82-1067 Spirit of Arizona 12/4/97 - Active
AV-3 Test/30 82-1068 Spirit of New York 10/10/97 - Active, Flight Test
AV-4 Test/30 82-1069 Spirit of Indiana 5/22/99 - Active
AV-5 Test/20 82-1070 Spirit of Ohio 7/18/97 - Active
AV-6 Test/30 82-1071 Spirit of Mississippi 5/23/97 - Active
AV-7 10 88-0328 Spirit of Texas 8/31/94 - Active
AV-8 10 88-0329 Spirit of Missouri 3/31/94 - Active
AV-9 10 88-0330 Spirit of California 8/17/94 - Active
AV-10 10 88-0331 Spirit of South Carolina 12/30/94 - Active
AV-11 10 88-0332 Spirit of Washington 10/29/94 - Active
AV-12 10 89-0127 Spirit of Kansas 2/17/95 - Crashed 23 February 2008
AV-13 10 89-0128 Spirit of Nebraska 6/28/95 - Active
AV-14 10 89-0129 Spirit of Georgia 11/14/95 - Active
AV-15 10 90-0040 Spirit of Alaska 1/24/96 - Active
AV-16 10 90-0041 Spirit of Hawaii 1/10/96 - Active
AV-17 20 92-0700 Spirit of Florida 7/3/96 - Active
AV-18 20 93-1085 Spirit of Oklahoma 5/15/96 - Active
AV-19 20 93-1086 Spirit of Kitty Hawk 8/30/96 - Active
AV-20 30 93-1087 Spirit of Pennsylvania 8/5/97 - Active
AV-21 30 93-1088 Spirit of Louisiana 11/10/97 - Active
AV-22/AV-165 canceled
Sources:, B-2 Spirit (Pace)

Additional names

  • The Spirit of Mississippi was known as the "Black Widow" before her commissioning ceremony.
  • The Spirit of Ohio has been known as "Fire and Ice" as a result of 100 hours of hot and cold testing performed upon it at the McKinley Climate Laboratory at Eglin AFB, Florida, during which it experienced temperatures of between 45 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • The Spirit of New York has been alternately called "Navigator", "Ghost" and "Afternoon Delight!". It is the only B-2 which is located at Edwards AFB.
  • The Spirit of Texas is also known as "Pirate Ship".
  • The Spirit of America is also known as "Fatal Beauty".

See also




  • CNN - B-2 stealth bombers make combat debut - 24 March 1999
  • Donald, David, ed. Black Jets: The Development and Operation of America's Most Secret Warplanes. Norwalk, Connecticut: AIRtime Publishing Inc., 2003. ISBN 1-880588-67-6.
  • Pace, Steve. B-2 Spirit: The Most Capable War Machine on the Planet. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. ISBN 0-07-134433-0.
  • Richardson, Doug. Northrop B-2 Spirit (Classic Warplanes). New York: Smithmark Publishers Inc., 1991. ISBN 0-8317-1404-2.
  • Spick, Mike. The Great Book of Modern Warplanes. St. Paul, Minnesota: MBI Publishing Company, 2000. ISBN 0-7603-0893-4.
  • Winchester, Jim, ed. "Northrop B-2 Spirit". Modern Military Aircraft (Aviation Factfile). Rochester, Kent, UK: Grange Books plc, 2004. ISBN 1-84013-640-5.
  • The World's Great Stealth and Reconnaissance Aircraft. New York: Smithmark, 1991. ISBN 0-8317-9558-1.

External links

Search another word or see climate-controlledon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature