With the arrival of the first B-2 bomber at Whiteman AFB, Mo., on December 17, 1993, the Air Force and its major combat component, Air Combat Command, entered a strikingly new era. The B-2 not only added a unique precision weapon to USAF’s arsenal but also broke down some barriers dividing fighter pilots and bomber crews.
At Whiteman, the best of the two groups are now embarked on the validation of B-2 aircrew training programs, which began in early January. Their work gives Northrop, the prime contractor, and CAE-Link, the simulator house, a chance to make improvements at an early stage. The blending of these distinctive “cultures” in the B-2 program mirrors initiatives that ACC has undertaken on a smaller scale in other units.
What makes the B-2 special, of course, is its combat power–specifically its ability to penetrate an enemy air defense with what officials say will be near-impunity. The B-2 is the ultimate “silver bullet” weapon. Plans call for only twenty B-2s, with about sixteen operational at any one time, but just two B-2s can deliver thirty-two precision guided 2,000-pound bombs. Such a mission would require sixteen F-117 fighters, four tankers, and many more crew members.
In the early validation and verification period at Whiteman, leaders of the 509th Bomb Wing, the operational home of the B-2, have been striving to instill in pilots and maintenance personnel what they call the “stealth mindset.”
It’s working. Spend time with some of the 2,886 pilots and enlisted personnel who work with The Spirit of Missouri (the official name of the first B-2) at its rural western Missouri base, and you pick up a sense of awe regarding the new airplane. The attitude stems partly from the B-2’s immense complexity and technological prowess but also from its simple beauty and unconventional lines. Observing the sleek aircraft one bright and bitterly cold day last January, assistant dedicated crew chief TSgt. Henry A. Price paused and summed up his feelings with these words: “We’re not worthy.”
Wafer-Thin and Quiet
Those watching the barely visible B-2 during a takeoff on that January day gasped when the wafer-thin bomber lifted off and then rolled into a sharp bank, suddenly revealing the vast sweep and size of the black wing. Even more shocking was the quietness of its four F118 19,000-pound-thrust engines as they propelled the aircraft into the sky. Normally, the roar of the jet engines would have been ear-shattering, easily heard miles away. The sound of the B-2, however, could almost be called unobtrusive.
The stealth mindset recognizes that the bomber is part of a whole. Until the 1991 Persian Gulf War, “I don’t think people really appreciated . . . what stealth could do for us,” observed Lt. Col. Tony Imondi, one of the B-2’s two qualified instructor pilots. “You don’t have [just] a stealthy plane; you have a stealthy weapon system and everything that goes with it, from ground planning to training to maintenance. You don’t go out and turn a wrench on a stealth airplane without thinking, ‘What’s the impact if I scratch this thing?’ because there is an impact.”
From the maintenance of its composite materials and specialized skin to the proper use of its stable of simulators that allows pilots to train for and even rehearse complex missions before they log one minute in the actual bomber, the B-2 was built from the ground up with all potential tasks in mind. Every aspect of aircraft support and training was included in the design of the B-2 system.
In pursuit of the best training system possible, former fighter pilots and bomber pilots debate the best way to go about each task. Whether the subject is tactics, training, or basic procedures, “It gets pretty spirited,” said Operations Group Commander Col. William Fraser III of the B-2 team. “They [pilots] sit around the table and say, ‘Fighter guys do it this way. . . . Bomber guys do it this way.’ We have good open discussions about it and come up with the best ideas. . . . We don’t censor anything.”
It seems appropriate that the B-2 would go to the 509th BW, one of the most famous air units of all time. Activated by Army Air Forces on December 17, 1944, the 509th was created with one mission in mind–to drop the new, supersecret atomic bomb on a Japanese target. The first leader of the unit was Col. Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., who hand-picked and trained his personnel for the August 1945 mission. Leaders of the present-day 509th were chosen by Gen. John Michael Loh, the commander of ACC, and Brig. Gen. Ronald C. Marcotte, the wing commander.
The goal is to form a cadre of highly experienced pilots who will prepare other aviators to use the massive combat capabilities of the B-2. Great care has also gone into the selection of key ground crew members. “We’re talking about cream of the crop,” General Marcotte said. “These are very highly qualified aviators and professional officers. They’re not just test community. These are card-carrying Air Force leaders, and they have the records to prove it.”
Sprinkled throughout the B-2 unit are individuals who have been with the B-2 program virtually since its inception. Some are officers who were whisked away to California years ago to work on a project about which they knew little or nothing. Sergeant Price, the assistant dedicated crew chief of The Spirit of Missouri, has been with the program since 1986. He was sent to California to work with Northrop on the top-secret program but could not tell anyone what he was doing. Two years later, when the Pentagon took the wraps off the program, Sergeant Price surprised his co-workers when he showed up for work in his uniform. They had had no idea he was in the Air Force.
Not Just for the Cold War
The B-2’s transition from developmental to operational status has been a rocky one. Initially developed during the Cold War to be a penetrating bomber with a primary focus on strategic nuclear operations, the B-2 hit turbulent times when the Soviet Union collapsed. Critics portrayed the bomber as a weapon without a mission.
Decisions made by the Air Force early in the program, however, had given the B-2 the flexibility to employ not only nuclear weapons but also conventional munitions ranging from Mk. 84 500-pound dumb bombs to sea mines to 2,000-pound precision guided weapons. Design changes made early in the course of the program gave the B-2 a low-level bombing capability.
The B-2 can carry a payload of more than 40,000 pounds. It has an unrefueled range of 7,255 nautical miles; with refueling, its range is unlimited. That means the B-2 can hit any target in the world within hours and, because of its low observable (LO) characteristics, officials can be confident that it will not be engaged over hostile territory.
Said General Marcotte, “It could strike high-value, time-critical targets in the initial phases of an operation [to] slow down a force, to put out eyes and ears, to drop smart weapons through those air-conditioning ducts, to slow the force so we can get our deployment operation ginned up to add more mass. Then . . . the decision could be made to forward deploy the B-2. They would then be able to fly more sorties closer together and add a lot of mass to the attack. Or the decision may be to reconstitute the B-2 in a different unit and hold them in reserve for a second major regional contingency or swing them. We’re training that way. . . . We’ll train to deploy.”
While the B-2 can carry eighty Mk. 84 500-pound bombs, it’s unlikely that it would be used in such a fashion. “We won’t use it as a bomb truck,” General Marcotte said. “The real operational capability will come when we can get smart weapons on it. It can drop sixteen smart weapons in a single pass, within ten-meter accuracy. You can take out an airfield. You know how many bombing sorties that takes other aircraft?”
Just Like the Real Thing
The heart of the B-2 system is its simulators. It uses three such trainers–the Cockpit Procedures Trainer (CPT), Mission Trainer (MT), and Weapon System Trainer (WST).
The CPT provides a basic feel for where switches are in the aircraft and what they do. This training is supplemented by classroom instruction. If a student throws a switch incorrectly, the system freezes. This prevents inadvertent learning of any improper procedure. Pilots learn procedures for both normal and emergency situations.
Beyond the CPT is the MT and WST. The MT is really a miniature WST, dealing only with the mission commander’s right seat. It complements the WST.
Colonel Imondi said the B-2 is easy to fly. Maj. Richard Vanderburgh, currently undergoing instructor pilot (IP) qualification training and simulator training, agreed. “It’s very well engineered. . . . It’s a pilot’s dream,” he said, adding that “your intense work load comes from the avionics, and the WST has virtually the same software as the airplane, so the crew gets extremely high fidelity on the avionics.” Major Vanderburgh has logged thousands of hours on the B-52.
The WST’s combination of hydraulically activated motion and high-fidelity images gives pilots something approaching the actual feeling of flight. Air pumps jolt each seat to simulate turbulence or even a rough landing. The WST compartment exactly duplicates the B-2 cockpit.
The pilot in the left seat is responsible for the actual flight of the aircraft, and he monitors all the parameters of the aircraft. The right-seater is responsible for carrying out the military mission. He handles navigation and bombing duties, as well as some piloting.
That division of labor is key. Early in the program, the Air Force considered the merits of a crew consisting of one pilot and one Weapon System Officer. After some internal debate, it was decided that two pilots would be needed. Either mission can be performed from either seat.
Each station has four multifunctional color displays. “Bezzle buttons” surround each screen. By pushing these buttons, pilots are able to call up “pages” of information on almost any system in the aircraft.
“There are not a lot of little sensor heads and knobs associated with turning on systems,” Major Vanderburgh said. “Everything is done electronically through the computers. We do a lot of actuating with the bezzle buttons and the multipurpose display units. We also have . . . a data entry panel.”
To the right of the mission commander is the mission recorder, where a tape with the mission data is loaded into the aircraft’s computers. The B-2 may be retasked while in flight. New mission data can be loaded into the system through the data entry panel.
Elation and Fatigue
Maj. Steve Tippets, another officer in the B-2 IP course, said, “You come out of a simulator mission, after three or four hours, and you really feel as if you’ve flown the aircraft. You feel the same elation and fatigue, depending on how difficult the flying is.” Major Tippets has logged more than 1,000 hours in F-16s.
As the pilots fly simulator missions, they are thoroughly monitored by instructors in another room, who see everything the pilots see. Every action, every button pushed is electronically recorded and stored, so that pilots can study their missions line by line. The information is kept in each pilot’s training file so that his progress can be monitored.
These data are important for validating the trainer system. The training syllabus and software are constantly being revised and upgraded, prompting the Air Force to seek experienced pilots for the course at this stage of the program. If problems occur and pilots fail to grasp certain information, chances are the fault lies with the training system, which can quickly be corrected.
Having the same software in the WST as in the B-2 allows pilots to rehearse missions before actually flying the aircraft. Lt. Col. Walter Denne, operations and training director of the B-2 Site Activation Task Force, said, “We can take mission data and we can put it through a mission generation system and actually plug the mission into the simulator. So when a crew comes in to fly the simulator, they’ll actually be flying the real mission as planned for the next day. And mission rehearsal is where we pick up an awful lot of invaluable training because we can simulate hostile territory. . . . We can simulate threats with the best available data. The reason you have two pilots in here is because things rarely go as planned.”
If the bomber itself displays system problems, technicians can use the simulator to check it out. “We’ve already had maintenance guys go to the simulator and do what we did in the airplane to try and find what the problem was because the simulator flies our airplane’s software,” Colonel Imondi said. “We put the same data into there. I’ve told them what happened in the airplane, and, I’ll be darned, right there in [the simulator] session it happened.”
The training program lasts about six months, with the first three months spent in the classroom and simulators. During the last three months, pilots focus on flying. However, once the six months have passed, the pilots start all over again. This cycle will be repeated indefinitely.
“Just Be Quiet”
Much has been written about B-2 tactics. B-2 operators contend that they are still trying to get a handle on how the bomber will be used, but some things are obvious.
“Our main tactic is to be quiet,” Colonel Imondi said. “Just be quiet [and] manage our LO, which covers every spectrum–acoustic, [infrared], and radar. All those things are tied together. Everything we do is low-power. If we have to, we can go in and go out without doing anything external to the airplane, depending on how the systems are operating. . . . We can go out and pinpoint things with our radar and other equipment without being detected, so the whole airplane is balanced.”
The B-2 is most detectable when the bomb bay doors are open, but that time is negligible, Colonel Imondi said. “The doors are open three to five seconds. There is no way they’re going to lock us up and shoot us down in three to five seconds. The endgame takes a whole lot longer than that. That’s the whole paradigm of stealth. It’s not that they can’t see you. . . . They can’t get you.”
Colonel Fraser said that tactics are still being developed and defined. “We have an aircraft that is very capable, that has a lot of features built into it. Now it is incumbent upon us to train and develop the best employment tactics for the aircraft.”
The B-2 can sense active threats and avoid them. According to the Air Force, the B-2 is not necessarily invisible to radar. However, air defense radars must do more than merely detect a B-2 if anyone seeks to destroy the airplane. The enemy must make enough consecutive detections to establish a track, then track the B-2 for some distance, and finally guide a missile to it.
An air-to-air missile would have similar problems because it must acquire, track, and fuze properly as it closes on the B-2. No known system can make it through all those gates.
Experts say that some very-high-powered, landbased, long-range early warning radars, with the right power and wavelengths, can in fact detect the B-2–but without any degree of precision. This imprecision disrupts the defense process. Air defense fighters must search an area so vast that their fire-control radars are unlikely to detect a B-2. Big, fixed, and stationary radars are vulnerable to such defensive tactics as flying under or circumventing their coverage.
B-2 pilots know which parts of the aircraft are most “detectable,” which radars are most effective, where the emitters are, and which position most greatly reduces the radar’s effectiveness. Countermeasures are expected to improve. Thus, the Air Force argues, the B-2 will be a potent, survivable platform for many decades.
Maintaining such a revolutionary air vehicle requires unique methods of care on the ground.
The B-2 may be complex, but its maintenance in some ways is easier and more efficient than that of older systems. For example, Sergeant Price said that in the old days he spent long hours diagnosing B-52 problems. “Now this airplane spits out a reference designated indicator and it tell us what’s wrong with it,” he said.
“Each component on the airplane that is electrical or mechanical has an RDI assigned to it. Once the part fails, it’s hot-wired and sent right to the flight-control computer on the airplane, which gives us a readout on the maintenance printer, and that tells us what’s wrong. The flight-control computer diagnoses its own problems. The airplane senses every little glitch, and it goes through all its memory banks, and it talks to itself. Sometimes it will correct itself in flight. It may just reset itself.”
Diagnosing a problem quickly means that the bomber can be turned around in less time and with fewer man-hours. If a problem occurs in flight, the aircraft “tells” the pilot about it.
One of the more challenging aspects of maintaining the B-2 is its composite materials. Unique methods have been developed to patch damage. Areas are specially prepared to accept a patch. Materials must be cured for certain periods of time at extremely high temperatures while hundreds of pounds of suction are applied to remove air bubbles that would ruin a patch. Some things can be patched on the aircraft; other repairs must be done at the shop.
Sometimes maintainers are thankful for little advances. For example, the B-2 has antilock brakes. Sensors detect when a brake is about to lock and automatically release pressure, which shifts the burden to other tires. This keeps tires from skidding and wearing out at a fast clip. Sergeant Price said that, so far, he has only had to replace two worn tires.
Under current plans, the first B-2 unit will not be fully operational until 1996 or 1997, though General Marcotte says that it could happen sooner. He noted that when the first B-2 arrived at Whiteman it was in “code one” status, meaning it could have been refueled and flown again right away. It flew a few days later and, again, it was code one. It had two minor write-ups on its third flight but still could have flown again.
“We’re meeting and exceeding our expectations,” General Marcotte said. “What we did different in the B-2 than in the B-1, for example, was we did more of the work up front, training our people, putting training systems on the base, putting Weapon Systems Trainers on the base. We were ready to maintain this airplane and ready to fly. If we continue to be successful and do our job like the first one, there is a potential that things would be operationally ready sooner.”