At $2.2 Billion dollars, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit is the worlds most expensive aircraft ever built. It has more computers onboard then most small Silicon Valley startups. These computers control everything from flight controls, advanced radar and GPS, telemetry, and precise calculations for bomb calculations. And two very intelligent pilots in the pointy end of the airplane. But what really keeps these aircraft flying are the Maintainers of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB.
With the longest combat mission flown in a B-2 Stealth Bomber lasting 44.3 hours and only 19 active aircraft in the whole fleet, maintenance is a mission essential priority. I’m told that on average that the B-2 Spirit undergoes 50 hours of maintenance for every one hour of flight. That’s nearly a hour of maintenance for every minute the B-2 is in the air!
This aircraft is as complicated as it is unique in terms of controls and stability. With a non conventional design, a lot of the flying is handled by the computers. But add to it the fact that the aircraft needs to maintain it’s stealthiness, even the most simple and routine maintenance becomes a daunting task.
That responsibility fall on the “Low Observability” team at Whiteman. Using top secret techniques, the dark grey coating helps the B-2 maintain a very tiny radar cross section (RCS) and helps it stay invisible to prying eyes.
To access the inside of the aircraft, layers of special stealth coating must be removed. The item that needs to be repaired is then accessed, fixed or replaced if necessary. And then the painstaking effort to close the skin up, reinspect the stealth coating, and triple check that the area is back to meeting the tight specifications to keep the RCS in line.
Just like your car has to go through it’s normal 3,000 mile oil changes, 10,000 mile minor maintenance, and major maintenance checks as time goes on; so does the B-2. In airplane speak, it is called a “phase check.”
Every X amount of flight hours that the B-2 Spirit flies (the exact number is classified), the aircraft is sent off to the LO dock and undergoes a major phase check.
While the average commercial aircraft would be out of service during a major phase check for a couple of weeks, the B-2’s phase check can last a couple of months due to the sensitive nature of maintaining it’s stealth profile.
The MXS team is a mix of many personnel. In the LO dock, it’s not unusual to find members of the 131st National Guard working side by side to their active duty 509th counterparts, all the while maintaining full time jobs in the local community. Here are a few members of the 131st Bomb Wing standing next to the Spirit of Missouri, which is the flagship of the National Guard at Whiteman AFB.
Another important asset to keep the B-2 flying are members of the 509th OSS Whiteman AFB Control Tower. Helping to coordinate aircraft in a 6 mile radius of Whiteman’s Class D airspace, the ATC crew ensure that the B-2 are safe when moving around on the ramp and during take off and landing.
In addition to the outstanding Airmen in the tower, a B-2 Pilot is staffed up there during any and all operations to be the direct point person for the aircrew on the ground. The SOF (Supervisor of Flying) makes sure that if the aircrew needs a hand to go over any emergency checklists, track down any questions they may have, or just an extra set of eyes to inspect the aircraft should the crew feel something is wrong.
RAPCON is another integral part of getting the B-2 to and from Whiteman AFB. The Radar, Approach, Control (RAPCON) team is responsible to control the airspace in and around Whiteman AFB which extends up to 9,000 feet and 45 miles.
They help coordinate the B-2 handoff to other ATC agencies in the area and also can offer a safe route to the B-2 to deconflict with other aircraft once they leave the immediate KSZL airspace.
And prior to stepping to the aircraft, the folks in the 509th OSS/OSW Weather group makes sure that the pilots have the latest and updated WX information. From icing, to winds aloft and potential storms or tornados in the area, they make sure that the B-2 is safe along it’s journey.
And once the aircrew is ready to go to the jet, they are driven out to the jet by the Transportation team.
Once at the jet, Crew Chiefs and Maintainers have already started the process to ensure that the aircraft is in the best possible conditions for the pilots to accomplish their missions.
They take immense pride in their jobs and that of their airplane. They help the pilots trouble shoot any last minute issues and prepare the plane to launch.
The job of keeping the B-2 flying isn’t only that of just two pilots. It takes an entire base to keep these planes mission capable of global strategic deterrence. Rain or shine, each person on base participates to ensure that the B-2 is an effective asset.