Stay on the blue line. Deviate and that means detection and potentially failure of the mission, or worse, death. When the $2.2 billion dollar B-2 Spirit is called upon to provide the president and combatant commanders with flexible and effective strategic deterrence and global strike options, it does exactly that. And with style. The sleek, sexy, ominous, dark and mysterious Stealth Bomber cuts through the skies like a hot knife through butter. “And on April 28th, 2014, I got a rare chance to sit right seat in the world’s most technologically advanced bomber and fly along on a simulated “nuclear strike” and “wage war” against our enemies.”
The B-2, which can carry both nuclear and conventional payloads, plays a vital role in establishing air supremacy, and the members of Team Whiteman train constantly to be ready to carry out both unique missions should the president call upon them. Even with no real munitions on-board during my flight, I would soon gain an up-close and personal appreciation for the power and capability of the aircraft. While only a fictional strike was being executed, members of the 509th Bomb Wing based at Whiteman AFB, MO train like you fight, and fight like you train. And today, crews from the 393d Bomb Squadron “Tigers” were allowing me a seldom seen opportunity to fly along in a B-2 mission to degrade Country X by taking down their Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) for 48 hours.
Three B-2 Spirits, flown by members of the 393d Bomb Squadron, 13th Bomb Squadron and reservists from the 131st Bomb Wing, were to participate in a multi-ship, multi-sortie mission to simulate an attack on a foreign country and bring down their air defense systems. “But in this case, for training purposes, that foreign country was represented in the simulation by St. Louis and Des Moines. America’s heartland.”
Our three ship sortie was sandwiched in the middle two other three ship sorties. An exercise that would have each of the B-2’s flying three 11.0 hour missions in a row. A feat that not only requires an incredible amount of coordination and mission planning from the 509th Operations Group, but also an impressive ramp up in maintenance from the 509th Maintenance Group. As mentioned in the previous post, for every hour the B-2 Spirit flies, it spends on average of 50 hours undergoing maintenance.
In fact, in the month of April, Whiteman AFB set a new record for most sorties and hours flown by 20 B-2s in a single month, completing 142 sorties for a record total 839.3 hours. 20 of those sorties were operational sorties. That is an impressive feat by the 509th BW and 131st BW. I was glad to say that I played a small role in that.
In the early hours at Whiteman AFB, maintainers were busy preparing the three B-2’s for their day of flying. Aircrews were busy putting final touches on their flight plans and coordinating last minute issues with Operations. The first wave of B-2’s would take off at 1130 and return at 1630 for a 5 hour sortie. Then, with the engines running, the B-2’s would stop on the hard stands, the new aircrew would hot swap, and then take off on the next mission. Our sortie with DEATH 21, DEATH 22, and my aircraft, DEATH 23, would then fly 3.0 and return for one last hot swap with the next crews in line. That final mission would last 3.0 hours before the planes finally shut down at 2330. This would be a long day for everyone involved, but effectively demonstrate the versatility of the aircraft and dedication of all those Airmen who support this weapon.
My pilot Shredder (full name being withheld due to Operational Security), A B-2 Instructor Pilot with the 393d BS, and I met at 1100 for our 1630 take off. We had a full day of flying ahead and it was going to be a busy time before we even left the ground. I had been on base since 0700, and had already successfully finished a medical check out with the Flight Doc, Egress & Ejection training with the SERE folks, parachute and harness training, and a visit to Life Support to make sure I had all the safety equipment I would need and that my helmet and O2 mask fit properly.
Shredder and I walked to the security gate just outside the 393d Bomb Wing. The security on this base is beyond impressive. And rightfully so when you are the sole base that is home to the entire USAF stealth bomber fleet. I was already stripped of my cellphone, any recording devices and all of my camera equipment before we got to the first checkpoint. After several security verifications and both written and verbal “UODFA” messages, we crossed the concrete and barbed wire fences and walked towards the BS building. Another security checkpoint and I followed Shredder into the building. You’d think that was it, but there was yet another checkpoint with a cypher lock, vault lock, and other security measures as I was about to enter the inner sanctum. The classified top secret mission planning room.
There Shredder and I briefed our sortie. DEATH 23 was a “fully armed” B-2 Stealth Bomber that was the third airship in a simulated mission to knock out the air defenses of an unspecified enemy nation. We would do an ERCC (engine running crew change), follow DEATH 21 and DEATH 22 for a staggered formation take off from Whiteman AFB, head south as an element towards Aerial Refueling track 110E and rendezvous with HOIST 90 (a 305th AMW KC-10 from JRB McGuire) to take on 15,000 lbs of fuel, drop 16 conventional JDAMs, reset for a tactical nuke mission and take out targets with B-83 nuclear bombs, then finally return to Whiteman AFB, ERCC with the next crew, and call our mission finished.
We briefed the Tactical Objectives: 100% DWE Against PRI 1 JDP1, 0 Withholds due to crew error, and a TOR +/- 60 seconds. Then we briefed our Administrative Objectives: Safe & Effective Sortie, Mission Reload, Formation Departure, and Formation A/R. Weapons Strike cards were reviewed, Mission Maps consulted, and finally a minute by minute schedule of the sortie.
- 1530 – Arrive at Hard Stand
- 1630 – T/O
- 1700 – RDZ w/ HOIST 90
- 1745 – Exit AR 110E
- 2256Z – WR 7000
- 2258Z – WR 7001
- 2300Z – Nuke Mission Reload
- 2322Z – B83 Release
- 2324Z – Last B83 Release
- 0030Z – Full Stop
Once our brief was over at 1230, we had about 30 min to go grab our dinner for the flight. While the B-2 runs on JP8, the aircrew runs on BX food. 🙂 I opted to go with one of my favorite meals, Taco Bell. 2 Bean Burritos, no onions. With long range B-2 flights lasting well over 30 hours, the second most valuable upgrade was the installation of a microwave. The first being a small cot next to the restroom.
We then headed back to 393d at 1300. With only 30 minutes having elapsed, our mission was in jeopardy of being canceled. Our B-2 that we were scheduled to fly in was having mechanical difficulties. A closed door discussion with the Top 3 had me in the hallway nervously pacing with the fear that this would get cancelled. In order for me to be able to get to fly in a B-2, no less then 6 Stars had to approve my flight. After initial approvals by the 509th Public Affairs department, Lt. Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command (a 3 Star), Maj. Gen. Scott A. Vander Hamm, Commander, Eighth Air Force (a 2 Star), and finally Brig. Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, Commander, 509th Bomb Wing (1 Star) had to approve this flight. Luckily Shredder walked out and said we were still a go, but instead of ERCCing, we would have to get AV-6, the Spirit of Mississippi, started and take her up.
With the change in scheduling, we began the scramble to find a second pilot to help start the B-2. While I was full capable of running through the checklist, that would have eaten up valuable time in order to make our 1630 take off. Top 3 would start making calls while Shredder and I went to Life Support to get our gear and start stepping to the aircraft.
We grabbed our helmet bags and our ACES II harness from OSS. The crew van was already waiting to take us to the Dock where AV-6 was.
As we left OSS, we got a call and picked up Dexter, the second B-2 pilot. We did our FOD checks and entered the flight line. Carefully dancing around crossing the red line of death, we entered via one of the ECP and headed towards the dock.
But as we approached the dock, the doors were closed and no maintainers were in sight. Not a good sign. Usually, the Crew Chiefs were out there 3 hours before a sortie to prepare the jet for launch. We were looking to launch in less then 1 hour. Luckily, this was just another opportunity for me to witness how versatile the Whiteman Warriors are.
A few minutes later, with a shake of the hand, the Crew Chiefs arrived and leapt into action.
Dexter jumped into the cockpit to start the preflight. And just like every other plane, Shredder and I did a walk around of the Spirit of Mississippi.
We kicked the tires, inspected the bomb bays, and consulted with the Crew Chiefs for a go/no go.
I grabbed my Taco Bell dinner and followed Shredder into the cockpit.
Shredder and Dexter continued the checklist and I sat on the toilet and watched. The B-2 only had two seats, and no jump seat. So the only other place to sit, other then the ground, was the worlds most expensive toilet.
As they finished the lists just in time, Dexter hopped out of the Mission Commander’s seat, and I jumped in. He helped me connect my harness to the ejection seat, comm chord, oxygen, and helped me familiarize myself with some of the basic switches. And just like the scene of a homicide, Dexter was gone without a trace. Comms were up and we were ready to run em up. The Crew Chiefs had done an incredible job! If this was actual war, and the B-2’s had to get airborne immediately, I am proud to have these Airmen at the ready.
With a flick of a switch, we told the computers to pull up the ladder and close the hatch.
One by one, we ran up the four General Electric F118 turbofan engines. I was surprised to learn that the B-2 actually had 4 engines, and not two as it would appear.
With oil temps and pressure rising, the Crew Chief pulled the fire bottle and we were ready to taxi on time.
As if on queue, the ground controllers in KSZL Tower came to life. “DEATH 23, cleared to taxi via Echo, Foxtrot, Alpha to runway 19.” Shredder pushed the throttles forward and did a quick break check. The black beast lunged forward and jerked to a stop.
We continued down the taxi way and quickly saw the other two B-2 Spirits taxing ahead of us.
With little to no chatter on the radio, DEATH 21, DEATH 22, and DEATH 23 move in silence towards an impending departure. Waiting for the exact minute for our formation take off with minimum delay.
We held short of Runway 19 as the other B-2’s in front of us rumbled down the runway.
They jumped to the skies like a kite being pulled by a string in gusty winds.
Then it was our turn. We released the brakes and pushed the throttles forward. In the our small windshield, I could see DEATH 22 just getting airborne and starting it’s right turn. Shredder did a final check of the instruments and went full throttle.
We roared down the runway. Not fast, but not slow. Having nearly the same wingspan as a 747, but only a third of the length, quickly rotated off the ground.
And the moment that our wheels lifted off the ground, I became Spirit #571; the 571th person to fly in a B-2 Spirit since it’s first flight almost 25 years ago on July 17, 1989. In that span, I became the 11th Civilian to have had the honor of flying in this famed aircraft.
As we flew on our south westerly heading and broke through the clouds, I spotted the other two B-2’s in front of us. It then hit me that this was actually happening. That after all these years of being persistent, I was witnessing something that no one gets a chance to see. Three of the nineteen flyable B-2’s in formation slicing through the clouds. 15% of the Stealth Bomber fleet airborne and on it’s way to do a formation aerial refueling.
As we passed through 15,000 feet and finally had a few moments to take a breath, Shredder turned to me and presented me my very own Spirit Coin. “Welcome to the club Spirit 571!”
I was smiling from ear to ear. Not that you could see under my oxygen mask, but trust me, I was! But now it was time to get back to business. Lead call in on the air to air frequency and had us check in. We were on track and passing through waypoint 8 at FL290 with a ground speed of 407 kts. “22 check. 23 check” We were approaching our first major check-point; waypoint 9, the trombone. It was a left 30 degree bank 180 for our B-2 formation to be able to to make up some time if need be before we hit the aerial refueling track 110E. A pre-programmed timing maneuver so that we rendezvous with HOIST 90 without overshooting them.
We stayed slightly high and to the right of DEATH 22, who was slightly high and to the right of DEATH 21 with about a 3 mile spread. It was then Shredder asked if I wanted to take the controls and fly for a bit. I hesitated and Shredder sensed it. He reassured me that he would be there to back me up. I had dreamed of logging my 0.1 flight hours in a B-2, but once I was up there knowing that if I screwed something up, that I could take out a tenth of the entire B-2 fleet. But I pressed on and took the stick. I was surprised at how easily the plane moved for it’s size. It was nimble and responsive. Must be all that lift. But I still couldn’t wrap my head around flying an aircraft with no rudder. Trippy. Elevons, Flaperons, and a little bit of pixi dust apparently. Jack Northrop would have been proud.
Shredder was busy handling ATC vectors around large thunderstorms and an angry Controller that sounded like he needed a hug. So I put those 100 hours of Private Pilot time to good use and helped out as best as I could: Shut up and fly the plane. Shredder asked me to keep at FL260 and keep DEATH 22 at our 11 o’clock at 280 kts. Once I got the hang of the throttles sensitivity, easy peasy.
But soon after we hit the trombone and I had my fill of dancing a B-2 through the sky, HOIST 90 came up on frequency and Lead was already trying to find him. Shredder and I had vectors of where HOIST should have been but we had no joy. The other thing adding complications to our flight was the giant storm cells that we were surrounded by. ATC had given DEATH flight a block altitude of FL25-26, which normally is enough room to be safe, but with storm clouds and the potential ice that hid inside, we tried our best to avoid them, much to ATC chagrin. But try as we might, we could not see HOIST 90. Eventually Lead spotted them off in the distance and beelined for the McGuire plane, but the damage was done and we had lost precious refueling time. HOIST 90 informed us that they would be able to refuel only the first two B-2’s before reaching the end of the aerial refueling track and my B-2 would only get 1 quick dry contact. Luckily for us, since we didn’t take off in the plane that had already flown 1 sortie before ours, we had plenty of fuel to complete our mission. And to top it off, the Boom Operator’s mic was not working, so all Boom commands would be routed through the Pilots. Awesome.
274 knots at 26,000 feet, two giant aircraft performed an aerial ballet of inching closer and closer to each other. We had the tanker in sight, and Shredder was trying his best to close in on the KC-10 without over-taking it and losing even more time. But ATC had traffic on a collision course and immediately ordered the KC-10 to do a right 360. Normally the KC-10 would follow a large race track pattern, but instead, we reached our max bank angle of 30 degrees and tried to keep up. Unknown to ATC, a giant cumulonimbus lay directly in our circle in the sky. As Shredder exercised ever pilot skill he had to keep the other aircraft in sight, once we started flying in and out of the tops of the cloud, the dark grey KC-10 was visible and then invisible again. So to back up our visual cues, we turned on the radar to avoid a nasty mid air collision. Once we rolled out straight and level, Shredder easily moved in for a solid connection. It was beyond impressive to see him follow that tanker in a full 360 and then nail it on the first try. And because of a very awesome MSgt KH from the 2nd ARS, I was able to get this priceless image of DEATH 23 being refueled by HOIST 90!
Once we hit the end of the aerial refueling track, Boom requested that we practice a procedure called an “Emergency Break Away”. Yup, its as awesome as it sounds. To simulate something going wrong (ie the boom of the KC-10 is about to penetrate the top of the B-2 or that the two aircraft are about to collide), the Boom Operator call a break away and the KC-10 pilots go full throttle and climb, while the B-2 pushes the nose down to maximize separation between the aircraft. It was pretty intense. But we survived and the flight made a left turn to intersect waypoint 16 and start the conventional bomb run to take out key targets in the simulated mission plan.
But unfortunately for us, the B-2 was accidentally loaded with a DV mission profile instead of the conventional and nuclear strike missions that we had briefed. With 100 miles to go before reaching Whiteman and just over an hour of flight time left, Shredder made an executive decision and made sure that I got the full experience, punched in some random coordinates and had me simulate the arming of our B-83 variable yield gravity nuclear bombs. As the Mission Commander, he had me enter the executive code from the President of the United States of America, and then flip the arm consent switch to arm our B-83 weapons. The computer took over and in an anti-climactic effort, simulated the release of a nuke. Somewhere below us, in a grass field a cow looked up and became instant steak. It was time to RTB.
We checked in with RAPCON and they gave us vectors to the ILS for Runway 19 at KSZL. We were the third scheduled to land, just as we took off.
As we turned base to final, we heard on the radio that DEATH 21 was having a faulty gear lock indicator. They made several low approaches and had folks in the Tower and the Top 3 visually check to make sure that the gear looked down and safe. While it was a distraction to me, Shredder was on the ball and got us on the ground with a very very stiff cross wind. The weather from the tornados over Indiana was still causing havoc over Whiteman. But He did it and got us on the ground.
As we taxied back, DEATH 21 did another low fly by for a gear check. The crash trucks rolled and positioned along the runway. By the time we reached our hard stand for our ERCC, word had passed that DEATH 21 was on the ground with no issues.
As I exited the plane, Shredder stayed behind until the next crew was ready to take over. Just because our sortie was over, that didn’t mean the Spirit of Mississippi was done for the night. She still had a lot of flying to do! But Farmer, the OG of the 131st BW, greeted me on the ramp to shake my hand and present me with his personal coin and a certificate honoring my flight in the B-2.
More importantly I was able to personally thank the ground crew who were preparing my jet to get back in the air. I was off to celebrate my accomplishment while they were just doing their job. If it wasn’t for men and women all around Whiteman AFB, these planes would never take flight. And it was clear how proud they were of this airplane.