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B2 Takes Flight - History

B2 Takes Flight - History


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The B-2 bomber made its first flight on July 17th. The plane resembles a flying wing reminiscent to the B-36. It uses advanced technology to make it invisible to radar. The B-2 can carry 23 tons of explosives.


The deadliest aviation accident: the Tenerife Disaster

The deadliest air crash in the world happened before the aircraft even got into the air.

On the morning of March 27, 1977, a bomb exploded at Gran Canaria Airport in Las Palmas. Because the local authorities feared that a second bomb would go off, the airport was closed and evacuated, and did not open until 3:00 PM later that day. Meanwhile, the flights that were supposed to land at Las Palmas were diverted to different airports, the closest one being Tenerife Airport, on another Canary Island.

Two of these flights, Pan American flight 1736, and KLM flight 4805, both operated by Boeing 747s, happened to have diverted to Tenerife. After a lengthy delay, they were ready for departure in the early evening, around 4:30 PM.

At 4:46, KLM contacts the ATC tower and requests permission to taxi. They are told to backtrack on runway 12 until the next available exit, then taxi on the parallel taxiway to runway 30 for takeoff. However, the message is misunderstood, so ATC amends their clearance, telling them instead to backtrack the entire length of the runway and make a 180 degree turn at the end to take off on runway 30.

Runways are numbered based on their magnetic heading, with the three digit number (between 0-360, with 360 degrees being North) rounded to the nearest ten, then with the last digit truncated. This means that each physical runway is actually two, since aircraft can take off in either direction. This is a Google Maps image of Tenerife airport, with the runways and intersections labeled. Map data © 2021 Inst. Geogr. Nacional, Google.

At 5:02, the Pan Am aircraft is also ready for departure. ATC tells them to taxi on runway 12 and exit the runway at the third intersection, then taxi on the taxiway to runway 30 for takeoff. However, the controller did not specify which specific intersection to exit at (C-3 or C-4), which may have caused some confusion.

At 5:05, KLM advises Tower that they are ready for departure. See the specific interaction transcribed:

This is the final ATC transmission before the accident. No eyewitnesses see the accident either.

KLM begins its takeoff roll at 5:06, disobeying the controller's instruction to stand by. At this point, Pan Am is still taxiing down the runway. Before they began the takeoff roll, the flight engineer asks the captain if the Pan Am aircraft was clear of the runway the captain responds with an emphatic "oh, yes".

When Pan Am sees the KLM aircraft hurtling towards them, they attempt to turn off the runway, but there isn't enough time for them to completely vacate the runway. The KLM aircraft is traveling much too fast to stop in time, but too slow to get airborne, which is what they tried to do. The pilots rotated early, causing a tailstrike. The KLM aircraft hit the side of the Pan Am aircraft, and both burst into flames. A total of 583 died from the accident, though 70 survived with nonfatal injuries.

In aviation, experts agree that catastrophic accidents like these do not occur due to one small or large mistake rather, there are a multitude of factors that snowball, compounding on each other until an accident happens. Let's take a look at the factors that contributed to this accident:

  • Weather: it was extremely foggy that day, and there was mist and low clouds. The visibility was so low, in fact, that the aircraft could not be seen taxiing from the tower. This also meant that the aircraft had less time to react because they saw each other so late.
  • Traffic: because Gran Canaria airport had closed earlier that day and many flights were diverted to Tenerife, there was a considerable amount of congestion at the airport. Part of the parallel taxiway had been closed down because overflow aircraft were parked there, which is why it was necessary for aircraft to be taxiing on the runway in the first place.
  • ATC Communications: having a standardized set of language conventions is critical in aviation, as it allows for consistency in communication and understanding by all pilots and controllers around the world. Here, non-standard phraseology was used, which could have caused confusion. For example, when the KLM captain says "we are at takeoff", it is a nonstandard phrase and the meaning is actually rather ambiguous. Are they ready for takeoff? Are they acknowledging a takeoff clearance? Are they simply announcing that they are taking off? In the latter two cases, they never received a takeoff clearance to acknowledge, and pilots do not typically announce that they are taking off. In ATC communications, special attention is given to the word "takeoff" in particular - controllers and pilots are encouraged to avoid using the word unless explicitly and deliberately giving or accepting a takeoff clearance, in which case the entire phrase "cleared for takeoff" should be used. Another minor issue in this case was that ATC didn't give the Pan Am aircraft a specific intersection to leave at, instead relying on a relative landmark (the third exit, rather than Intersection C-3). However, this wasn't very relevant since Pan Am was still taxiing on the runway when the accident occured.
  • Fatigue: at the time a few years before the accident, the captain of a Dutch aircraft was allowed to extend the duty time of the crewmembers at their discretion in the event of a delay or other circumstance that resulted in the crew going over the legally allowed working period without rest. However, the law had been recently changed so that the captain must contact the company to see how long the crew's duty time could be extended. In this case, the crew had no idea how much longer they would be working, which became a subconscious psychological factor. Additionally, their day had not gone very well - the threat of terrorism (the bomb at Gran Canaria) along with delays, having to be on board the aircraft for several hours on the ground, dealing with passengers, etc. made for a unpleasant experience for the crew. Who would still maintain a clear and focused mind after that whole ordeal?
  • Get-there-itis: the crew was likely experiencing a mild case of this condition, in which the pilot(s) are determined to get to their destination, despite poor conditions. Pilots with get-there-itis are often prone to pushing limits, rushing, or being impatient. Though get-there-itis usually refers to general aviation pilots who fly VFR into IMC, it still applies here. This issue was especially strong combined with the crew fatigue issue. In this case, the pilots' determination to get airborne and enroute as quickly as possible caused them to neglect to double-check that the runway was clear or that they had a takeoff clearance, despite the abnormal taxiing procedures and very poor weather.
  • Authority: the cockpit culture of this time was quite different from how operations are conducted today. The captain had a lot more power, and their authority was much more absolute. While the captain still has the final authority over the aircraft today, the climate is much more democratic and inclusive. Additionally, the captain of the KLM aircraft had a high rank in the company, which likely contributed to the first officer's hesitancy to speak up.

While this incident occurred over forty years ago, we can still take away some important lessons from it. First, that proper, standard phraseology is paramount to ensuring safety in aviation and preventing miscommunications. Next, that human factors should be mitigated to the extent possible - the crew likely needed to rest in this case, though it would have occurred at a massive inconvenience to the airline. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. Though tragic, the Tenerife Disaster taught aviators and regulators important lessons in aviation safety, and overall helped make flying safer for those in the future.


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Surveying the damage: Libyan army soldiers stand amid the wreckage of the administration building inside Bab Al-Aziziyah, Gaddafi's heavily fortified compound in Tripoli

As well as the eight 'bunker busters', its bomb bays can carry 16 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), which have been tested at ranges 180 miles from the target, or the Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW), a glide bomb that releases cluster bombs.

A major drawback, however, is the intensive maintenance required by the B-2s, whose heat and moisture sensitive skin must be painstakingly taped and cured after every mission.

In previous conflicts, the maintenance requirements kept the B-2s tethered to their home base at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

In Afghanistan, that meant 44-hour bombing runs for their two-member crews, the longest air combat missions in history. It also meant few B-2 missions.

But the air force has built special climate-controlled shelters at bases on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and at Fairford, Gloucestershire, for B-2s, which were built by Northrop Grumman and first flew in 1989.

Staying awake for the 25-hour mission while being in control of bombs that weigh nearly a tonne is a difficult task and one that tests the mettle of the pilots that take part in such journeys.

It isn't clear how the six pilots on Operation Odyssey Dawn managed to stay awake, but in the past they have used a fold-out bed behind the seats at the controls. It is also possible that they used auto-pilot for the majority of the journey but used manual controls while bombing so that they could keep concentrating on the task at hand.


A-12 Oxcart & SR-71 Blackbird

A-12 Oxcarts in a row, circa 1963.

Launched in 1957, Project Oxcart produced two of the fastest, highest-flying aircraft in U.S. history, the one-seat Archangel-12 and the two-seat SR-71 Blackbird. The A-12 had two jet engines, a long fuselage and a distinctive cobra-like appearance.

The first completed A-12 arrived at Area 51 in February 1962, after being disassembled in Burbank and transported to Nevada in a specially designed trailer that cost almost $100,000 (more than $830,000 today). To keep the A-12’s existence secret, the CIA briefed the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who made sure air-traffic controllers were told to submit written reports of unusually fast, high-flying planes, rather than mention such sightings over the radio. Still, reports of UFO sightings around Area 51 would reach new heights in the mid-�s, writes Annie Jacobsen in Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, starting just after the A-12 made its official first flight over Area 51 in April 1962.

Declared fully operational in 1965, after attaining a sustained speed of Mach 3.2 (just over 2,200 m.p.h.) at 90,000 feet of altitude, the A-12 began flying missions over Vietnam and North Korea in 1967. The following year, it was retired in favor of its Air Force successor, the SR-71 Blackbird.

A U.S. Air Force SR-71A, also known as the "Blackbird", is put through it&apos&aposs paces during a test flight over Beale Air Force Base in California. The aircraft is a strategic reconnaissance plane by Lockheed and is the world&apos&aposs fastest and highest flying operational aircraft.

Longer and heavier than the A-12, the SR-71 paired supersonic speed with a low radar profile, due to its sleek tapered design and black radar-absorbing paint. On July 28, 1976, pilots flew an SR-71 at a record speed of Mach 3.3, or 2,193 mph. At 400 feet per second, this was literally faster than a speeding rifle bullet. Retired in 1990, after more than three decades of service, the SR-71 remains the world’s fastest aircraft.


B2 Takes Flight - History

I collected several pictures of the B2 a while back. I used to have my walls plastered with them, now this page is plastered with them. I hope you enjoy the pics and other B2 web sites below. All the pics can be found on the net, ah but the patch collection can only be found here. :-)

Try these two SlicePuzzles featuring the B2 Stealth Bomber!

  • 02/07/07
    Not only did I finally find one of those B-2 Skull patches, but I also got the "alien eating the B-2" patches! That's right, I got the original "To Serve Man" and "Classified Flight Test" reproduction. I'm a very happy collector right now. I have begun work on a database driven system for displaying and maintaining my patch collection.
  • 01/13/07
    I've added a few new links once again. I've continued my patch buying binge since the last update. I still plan to get a new patch display working here as a result, but I'm insanely busy and am not sure when I'll get that accomplished.
  • 05/14/05
    I've added a few new links after surfing a bit. I've also been on a patch buying binge the last few weeks and have added significantly to my collection. I plan to get a new patch display working here as a result.
  • 03/08/03
    The B2 bomber looks like it is going to see action in the coming war in Iraq. I've added links to a few articles discussing their deployment in the links section below.

    The B2 Bomber Wing began practising on Tuesday for the deployment to the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and an airbase at Fairford in England, said a commander of the bomb wing. WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Missouri, Oct 30 (AFP) - The United States will deploy B-2 Stealth bombers closer to the Gulf region to increase the US firepower there .
    The performance of the B-2 exceeded the expectations of even its most ardent fan.. This is an article from Defense Daily contributed by Robert Wade. CNN report. ABC news report. They have nifty slide show of all the planes involved in the Kosovo action.
  • B2 Bomber Finally Sees Combat Fox News Article. (expired)
  • Kosovo Crisis - Military Hardware The BBC reviews the weapons used in the Kosovo action. (expired)
    A very impression summary of the air show including high resolution detailed photographs of the B-2 banking at close range. A very cool new site that aircraft enthusiasts will love. The shape began with a lump of clay at Disneyland--and led to stealth designs that live on in the B-2 and the F-22. This page contains some very interesting background on the projects leading up to and including the B-2 project. Only about seven of the U.S. Air Force's 21 B-2 bombers are ready to go at any time. Check out some very close up and rare pictures of the B-2 during maintenance and flight. Another fun page discussing the B-2 and it's possible UFO connections. It features a very entertaining patch that certainly caught my attention. With a B-2 Spirit bomber as a backdrop, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld thanks the men and women at Whiteman Air Force Base. This page has an excellent write up about the B-2's history and specifications. This is a really cool description of the condensation pattern captured on an air force photograph of the B2 completing a mission over the Pacific Ocean. There are links on this page to higher res photos than the one shown. This one hour special takes us from Northrop Grumman where the B2 is built, to Edwards Air Force Base to take a look at the B2 close up. Huell and Luis were the first media representatives to be allowed in the cockpit of this top secret plane. "He became convinced that the Hudson Valley UFO was actually the B2 Stealth Bomber." I really want that skull patch. Anyone have one for sale? "PLEASE DO NOT TURN 22nd MARCH INTO A NATIONAL DAY OF ACTION AT MILITARY BASES, as it will dilute our genuine desire to deny the use of US STEALTH BOMBERS from British soil." Great collection of information about the B2 Stealth Bomber. The B2 Stealth Bomber is the latest technological triumph of the American Aerospace industry. In "Majestic Wing," artist Steven Moore depicts the dawn of American airpower for the 21st century, as the pilots are shown pressing their B2 Stealth Bomber aircraft to new heights, slicing through the afternoon air over a popular National Park. This sort of page is always good for a smile. Thanks to Alain for the contribution. Dynamic Flight Plan Update Scenario Home of the Beast These guys found me and I am more than happy to link them. There is so much independent information floating around out there and linking it together benefits all enthusiasts. I was looking around for some more links and came across this one. There are some really great scans of patches there as well as other excellent info. Since the Mission Invisible seems to be gone, this page does a great job of explaining how stealth technology really works. Check it out. Interesting article on the history of the plane and recommendations for its future. The Air Force Association has a collection of articles concerning the B-2 since February 1991. This link searches the Air Force Link site for B-2 Bomber images. This is a must see! The creators of this panorama were allowed to photograph the inside of the B2 cockpit shortly before its delivery to the Air Force. With the QuickTime plug-in you can pan 360 degrees and even zoom in & out. This site has several other interesting B2 links as well as other airplane information. You can even see a C-130H landing and taking off from an aircraft carrier! This is a very good write up of the B2's capabilities and theory of operation. Don't miss the video of the successful GAM demonstration and the 3D rotatable B2 model. (It looks as though they have taken this awesome page offline! That really sucks because it was a very nice set up.) There are some really nice shots of the B2 from Nellis AFB and Fairford RAF air shows. Ed Mirmak also sent this link which contains a list of B2 tail numbers. This page is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists. This is a very informative page with background, pictures, specifications, tail numbers, air vehicle names, and plenty more links. Ollie Enders contributed this link. He points out to be sure to read the Jack Northrop address to the Royal Aeronautical Society. You'll also be impressed by the influence on current space vehicle designs. Northrop Grumman's Integrated Systems Air Force products page. These people updated their B2 site and it's quite an improvment. Just the facts from the guy's who should know. Some cool pictures and status of the operational wing. Statement of The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology Paul G. Kaminski Before the National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations on Bomber Modernization (May 17, 1995). He can say that he had the extreme pleasure of neither confirming or denying that he worked on this plane. A few pictures from a tour of Whiteman AFB.

Best of the best B2 pics!

( Most images courtesy of Air Force Link )

. why in the world they chose to call this bird the "spirit"? I mean someone must have eaten of the insane root, what takes the reason prisoner? My favorite B2 patch is the one with the eyes and talons diving down on an unsuspecting prey. You know--stealthy, sharp, lethal, ominous. Instead what do we get? Hey everybody let's all get excited and cheer for the "spirit of (your state here)". Sheesh! Why couldn't they have continued in the fine tradition of naming our airplanes cool names like Talon, Eagle, Intruder, Black Bird, Falcon, Tomcat, I mean even the WartHog beats this pansie-ass "spirit" nonsense! I'm sure there will be an unofficial name for this bird by it's pilots and other enthusiasts that is more consistent with it's character. Perhaps there is already, until I hear of one I will continue to sit here and stew and wish bad things upon the politicians who emasculated this most proud and awesome of warrior birds!

Update 3/24/99: I was watching Hannity & Colmes on the Fox News Channel tonight and they had former Congressman Bob Dornan as a guest. During the show he said that he had flown the B2 and has been credited with naming it the Spirit! For all of you who agree with my comments just prior, at least we now have a target for our disgust.

. is what we say when we don't want to forget something or someone very important. May we never forget what happened on September 11, 2001 and why it is we do what we do now as a result.

This unspeakable act of violence must not be allowed to be repeated. Our war on terror is not to be taken lightly. This war we wage is against those who use terrorism as a means to achieving a political goal. This struggle is hardly glamorous, it does not come free of charge, it is simply. necessary.


The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) postulates that Earhart and Noonan veered off-course from Howland Island and landed instead some 350 miles to the Southwest on Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro, in the Republic of Kiribati. The island was uninhabited at the time.

A week after Earhart’s disappeared, Navy planes flew over the island. They noted recent signs of habitation but found no evidence of an airplane.

TIGHAR believes that Earhart𠅊nd perhaps Noonan—may have survived for days or even weeks on the island as castaways before dying there. Since 1988, several TIGHAR expeditions to the island have turned up artifacts and anecdotal evidence in support of this hypothesis.

Some of the artifacts include a piece of Plexiglas that may have come from the Electra’s window, a woman’s shoe dating back to the 1930s, improvised tools, a woman’s cosmetics jar from the 1930s and bones that appeared to be part of a human finger.


Aviation during the First World War - irrelevant or critical factor?

The First World War (1914-1918) was the first major military conflict in which aviation and airpower was widely used. Although flight was still in its infancy towards the beginning of the war, the technology greatly progressed as the war continued, driven by a need for quick innovation. Even a small technological upper hand could make a huge difference.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, leading to a rapidly escalating series of conflicts in Europe. Alliances resulted in the Allied and Central Powers. Civilian morale was high and a deadly worldwide conflict ensued over the next several years.

Reconnaissance was the primary role of aviation during the war, and especially during its early stages. Aircraft and engines weren't strong at all and could at most carry their own weight and maybe one or two people. As such, they were used mainly to fly above the battlefield and provide information to people on the ground, who could make informed strategic decisions. Lighter-than-air balloons were also used for reconnaissance, but they were quickly phased out by their fixed-wing counterparts. Balloons were large targets that could easily be shot down.

The Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.5 was a fixed-wing biplane two-seat reconnaissance aircraft used by Britain during the First World War. In 1914, it set an altitude record by flying to almost 19,000 feet. Public Domain.

Most early airplanes were in pusher configuration - that is, the engines and propellers were behind or next to the pilots. The advantages of this configuration were that they allowed pilots good visibility, which was paramount since the aircraft were being used for reconnaissance. However, the tractor configuration (engine and propeller in front) gained in popularity. Although the visibility was now obstructed, the tractor configuration allowed for heavier and better engines to be placed on aircraft, causing a large increase in performance. This became the standard and preferred design.

Better performance and more powerful engines led to new, unique uses of aviation during the war. As aircraft could carry increased loads, the first cases of aerial bombings came to be. Initially, it only consisted of pilots throwing hand grenades or small bombs out of their aircraft. However, larger and larger bombs could be loaded into aircraft and dropped, allowing for strategic bombing. Bombings were hindered by a lack of accurate aiming echnology and poor navigational equipment. The Germans also used Zeppelins to bomb the British, but they were large, easy, highly flammable targets whose effects mostly included civilian terrorization.

The Gotha G.V was a twin-engine pusher configuration bomber used by Germany during the First World War for long-range night bombing operations. It featured a dedicated bomb compartment and a tunnel a gunman could use to operate weaponry aimed below the aircraft. Public domain.

Increased load carrying capacity also led to fighter aircraft and the first cases of direct aerial warfare. Initially, pilots from opposing armies avoided fighting each other directly. However, pilots soon began to carry pistols and shotguns with them, with the intent of shooting at other aircraft. The guns were slow and inaccurate, and rarely did the shots hit where intended.

Machine guns were the solution. They were already being used widely on the ground, so why not add them onto airplanes? The task wasn't so simple. Adding a machine gun onto a pusher aircraft would be difficult as the engines weren't powerful enough to carry such a load. Adding machine guns onto tractor aircraft resulted in the bullets hitting the propeller and shooting it off. The French solved that problem by adding metal shields onto the backs of the propellor blades to deflect the shots that hit it. Unfortunately, this did not work for the Germans whose steel bullets shattered the guards, unlike the copper bullets used by the French.

Problems require solutions, and need drives innovation. The Germans invented a new piece of technology called the interrupter. Aptly named, it prevents machine guns from firing when the propeller blocks it. This allowed for increasingly powerful fighter jets. Fighter aircraft also led to formation flying, in which aircraft could guard each other by flying near each other. Fighter aircraft also led to a series of aces, who attempted to shoot down as many enemy aircraft as possible. One of the most famous aces of the First World War was Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. He was able to shoot down 80 enemy aircraft during the war, and died in battle in 1918. Canada's Billy Bishop who shot down 72 enemy aircraft now has an airport in Toronto named after him.

So just how important was aviation during the war? Historians often have mixed opinions. Some take the stance that because aviation and airpower were still in early development, they didn't play an important role in the war. Others believe that airpower was decisive.

It's certainly true that aviation was still in its infancy at the time of the war, but the war made it so that countries needed to rapidly improve and develop their technologies so that it could be used more effectively. During the war, people were well aware of the advantages that aviation gave to those who had it, and they dealt with it accordingly.

At the Battle of Verdun, the Germans were aware of French reconnaissance aircraft and attempted to trick them as they were preparing for the battle. They also tried to block them from the air. German reconnaissance aircraft allowed them some advance knowledge of what would happen at the Battle of the Somme, which may have been a factor in the deadly stalemate that ensued. At the end of the war, the Treaty of Versailles banned Germany from having any military aviation at all. If aviation wasn't important to the First World War, then why did the Allies try to permanently destroy Germany's military aviation?

The Fokker Dr.I was a triplane flown famously by the Red Baron. Although not shown, his aircraft was painted a bright shade of red. Public domain.

As the first major military conflict in which airpower was widely used, the First World War was an impetus that led to a boom in aviation technology development. It led to stronger engines, better airframes, and new technologies altogether. As the war came to an end, people began to realize just how effective aviation was in military applications, and that it would completely change the way future wars were fought.


These Cold War photographs recall a time when the Britain’s V-Bombers carried a nuclear payload

The third and final bomber of the Royal Air Force’s V-force, the Handley Page Victor may not be as iconic as its delta-winged brethren the Vulcan. Neither did it have the Valiant’s dubious distinction of dropping nuclear weapons, but during the height of the Cold War it was at the forefront of Britain’s strategic nuclear strike force.

Like the Vulcan, the Victor boasted a futuristic design that seemed to epitomise the jet age of the 1950s and 1960s and its distinctive high swept T-tail was still gracing the skies as a refuelling aircraft in the early nineties.

More like this

Having entered service in 1957 as the last of the V-bombers, a move to strategic low level flying in response to surface to air missile technology saw the Victor retire from strategic bombing duties in 1968, but by then the V-bombers had seen action in both the 1956 Suez crisis and the Indonesian conflict of 1962 – 3.

Victor tankers were still in use by the time of the Falklands War in 1982 when they were called on to refuel Vulcans on their long range Black Buck bombing missions of Argentinian held airfields, and it was the Victor that was the last of the V-bombers to retire from active duty – in 1993 after deploying for a final refuelling role during the first Gulf War.

A Handley Page HP.80 Victor B.1aircraft camouflaged in an anti-flash white designed to protect the aircraft against the effects of a nuclear detonation, is prepared for flying. This is probably at 232 Operational Conversion Unit, RAF Gaydon, in late 1957 or early 1958.© IWM (RAF-T 523)

The Captain of a Handley Page Victor B.1 seated in his (left hand) seat at the controls wearing full flying kit, including protective helmet and oxygen mask.© IWM (RAF-T 1060)

Minister of Defence, the Right Honourable Duncan Sandys, is briefed on the Handley Page Victor B.1’s controls and capabilities by Sqn Ldr Young, prior to a flight in Victor XA937 of No 10 Squadron at RAF Cottesmore, 19th June 1959. © IWM (RAF-T 1071)

The crew of a Handley Page Victor of No 10 Squadron RAF scramble at RAF Cottesmore: It may have been the jet age but the means of getting to the plane was distinctly 1940s looking. © IWM (RAF-T 1008)

A Handley Page Victor B.2 under tow from an RAF towing truck. The flight crew talk to the driver of the truck.© Crown copyright. IWM (RAF-T 6171)

A Handley Page Victor B2 is loaded with a Yellow Sun Mark 2 dummy round during a NATO exercise. © IWM (RAF-T 4141)

Handley Page Victor XH648, dropping a non-nuclear bomb load while in service with No. 57 Squadron, Royal Air Force.© Crown copyright. IWM (HU 81578).

One of the last intact Victors, and the sole B1 type with an intact glass panel in the nose cone, now resides at The Imperial War Museum, Duxford.

VictorXH648 undertook its maiden flight on November 27 1959 and, after a series of conversions in 1961, was flown as part of the Far East Air Force during the Indonesian Confrontation and was the only Victor to drop 35 1000lb bombs over the Song Song area.

In 1965 it was converted into a two-point tanker, a role in which it served until its retirement in 1976 to Duxford airfield, where it is now part of Imperial War Museum’s collection.

But years on the tarmac have not been kind to the old aircraft and although it is in good condition internally, there are signs of corrosion externally. A deep survey is needed to assess its condition and experts say conservation may take up to five years.

An English Electric Lightning F.6 of No 74 Squadron at RAF Leuchars, Fife, being refuelled by a Handley Page Victor K1A of No 55 Squadron from RAF Marham, Norfolk.© Crown copyright. IWM (RAF-T 6977)

Two Royal Air Force McDonnell Douglas Phantom FGR2 aircraft of No 54 Squadron RAF from RAF Coningsby refuel in flight from a Handley Page Victor K 1 tanker of No 214 Squadron RAF based at RAF Marham.© Crown Copyright IWM CT 57

A Handley Page – Hawker Siddeley Victor K2 tanker aircraft of No 57 Squadron RAF at Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island. A detachment of 17 Victor tankers of No 55 Squadron and No 57 Squadron RAF were sent from RAF Marham to Ascension Island for the Falklands Conflict. Initially, Victors carried out maritime radar reconnaissance patrols. In May, they provided inflight refuelling support to Vulcans (in the Black Buck bombing missions to the Falklands), Nimrods on maritime reconnaissance patrols, Hercules supply drops and Harrier and Phantom aircraft.© Crown copyright. IWM (FKD 1169)

VictorXH648 in its hangar at IWM Duxford now needs extensive work to conserve it’s outer skin.© IWM

Help fund the conservation of VictorXH648 by donating at the Just Giving Page

See all three V-bombers together in the Cold War hangar at RAF Museum, Cosford.

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Royal Air Force Museum Cosford

Shifnal, Shropshire

The Royal Air Force Museum Cosford is home to over 75 historic aircraft and offers a fun, entertaining day out for the entire family. Aircraft on display include the world’s oldest Spitfire, the unique TSR2 and the mighty Vulcan bomber to name but a few. Plus, visitors can now see&hellip

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The Raider Takes Shape

Four years into development, the Air Force is starting to reveal more about the B-21 bomber.

The first B-21 Raider bomber is coming together at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., facility and will likely be rolled out for public view in 20 months, making its first flight a few months later. The Air Force is also planning, in its next budget proposal, to increase the buy to 150 or more aircraft, up from 100. The B-21 picture, highly secret for the last four years, is starting to come into focus.

Top Air Force leaders are beginning to speak more openly about the B-21. Randall G. Walden, head of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which runs the bomber development effort, said in October, “We’re ready to start actually building parts.”

Construction has begun at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale plant. “We do have an airplane in there,” Walden said. “That would be our test ship No. 1. We’re working the production line, literally, today.” Major structures, like the wings, are being brought into the assembly line.

When it comes to the B-21 Raider, USAF won’t try to ‘sneak it out.’ There will be a public rollout of the new bomber.

Randall G. Walden, head of the Air Force Capabilities Office

Timelines at this stage are still slippery. Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, said he was counting down the days to the B-21’s first flight, which he projected would come in December 2021.Walden is not so sure. Though that’s still the target, “I would not bet on that date,” he said, emphasizing how “complex” the B-21 is. Integration issues, ground testing, and even weather could affect first flight, he said.

The Air Force won’t try to simply “sneak it out,” Walden asserted, promising a public rollout at Palmdale, just as with the B-2 in 1988. But while it took nine months for the B-2 to go from rollout to inaugural sortie, Air Force officials anticipate a much shorter preflight evaluation period before that first flight from Palmdale to nearby Edwards AFB, Calif. After that, Walden said, USAF will “start to open up” about B-21 capabilities.

At a Palmdale event in August celebrating the 30th anniversary of the B-2, Northrop Grumman said it had grown from 24,000 to about 28,000 employees at its California locations. Aerospace Systems sector President Janis G. Pamiljans said, “We’ve been on a tremendous hiring spree” while simultaneously refurbishing and expanding the Palmdale facilities, which included relocating production operations for the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-4 Triton.

Northrop’s contract for engineering and manufacturing development (including the first five aircraft) represents a $23.5 billion investment. The production contract could be worth $55 billion for 100 airplanes, Walden said in 2016, not including additional, unidentified programs in the “family of systems” that will make the B-21 effective.

The Air Force’s original plan for the B-21 contract called for “80 to 100” aircraft, but USAF leaders over the past two years have been touting “at least 100” airplanes. At AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September, USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said he’s “100 percent in lockstep” with the views expressed in multiple third-party reports that 100 is too few. While he acknowledged the B-21’s development cycle can’t be sped up, he said he’d like to buy more than 100 of the jets, and buy them faster than currently planned.

Matthew P. Donovan, service undersecretary, in an October interview with Air Force Magazine, laid out the math behind the “Air Force We Need” analysis, which called for seven more bomber squadrons, growth required for long-range power projection in the Pacific Theater and elsewhere. “A bomber squadron’s got about eight airplanes in it,” Donovan noted, so the Air Force’s analysis indicates a requirement for about 56 more bombers. “I think … you’ll see us put some real numbers to the total numbers of bombers” in the 2020 budget request, Donovan said. But he also cited an analysis by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, which concluded the Air Force has a demand for at least 174 B-21s, noting Goldfein “agrees with that.”

The Air Force has not announced any deviation from original cost targets and cost ceilings on the B-21. In base year 2010 dollars, the service said at contract award that it expected the jets to come in at $511 million apiece, with a not-to-exceed price of $550 million. In 2019 dollars, that would be $553 million and $651.7 million, respectively. Both numbers were calculated against a buy of 100 airplanes, though a larger volume of production could drive unit costs lower.

Air Force leaders have said numerous times that the B-21 program is among the best-run programs in the Air Force, hitting its cost and schedule marks. Walden said the only thing that could dramatically raise the price of the airplane is a significant change in performance requirements.

USAF’s Global Strike Command plans to retire the 62 B-1 and 20 B-2 bombers by around 2031. Producing 15 B-21s per year would enable the Air Force to have 100 of the new bombers on hand by that point. The Air Force has reactivated the 420th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards—the unit that tested the B-2—to put the B-21 through its paces.

Satellite images of Edwards reveal a number of new structures in the South Base area, including one building that is about 220 feet square—about the size needed to shelter a B-2-sized aircraft. The Air Force has also relocated B-1 and B-52 test activities away from South Base.

Walden told Air Force Magazine that the B-21 program had not made use of a subscale demonstrator to prove out the aircraft’s aerodynamics, although he had previously described wind tunnel testing on the bomber. “You always look for opportunities to do things lower-risk,” he said, but a subscale aircraft was not part of that effort, he said. He declined to offer further details.

Walden’s comment was curious because a number of Air Force officials and members of Congress have made comments suggesting they were satisfied there was a “fly before buy” approach taken with the B-21. In selecting Northrop Grumman as the B-21 contractor, the Air Force cited the company’s competence to do the project based on its “other programs.” Those could include a high-altitude intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft said to be called the RQ-180, which may resemble the B-21’s cranked-kite planform. Northrop’s balance sheet indicates a hefty amount of classified work.

The B-21’s shape, identical to the original planform of the B-2, suggests the aircraft is optimized for stealth at high altitude. The B-2’s requirements were changed early in the program, to give that airplane more rigidity and ease of handling in low-level penetration flight. The B-2’s shape was altered to the now-familiar “sawtooth” tail a design revision that cost billions of dollars and years of time.

The sole artist’s concept of the B-21 released by the Air Force shows the cranked-kite shape without modification, indicating USAF won’t be taking the B-21 down to fly nap-of-the-earth.

Comparing Stealth Bombers. Graphic: Dash Parham/staff Illustration: Mike Tsukamoto/staff

History of Stealth: From Out of the Shadows

Two F-117s on the ramp at Al Jaber AB, Kuwait, ready for a mission in support of Operation Southern Watch in 1998. Photo: TSgt. James Mossman

The existence of a new technology called “stealth” was announced by Secretary of Defense Harold Brown at a Pentagon news conference Aug. 22, 1980.

The special contribution of stealth was that it could reduce the radar cross section of an aircraft to approximately that of a bird, enabling a bomber to penetrate deep into enemy airspace without being detected or intercepted.

“It is not too soon to say that by making existing air defense systems essentially ineffective, this alters the military balance significantly,” Brown said.

What he did not say was that a stealth fighter prototype—which would lead eventually to the F-117 Nighthawk—had been test flown in 1977, or that a forerunner of a stealth bomber—the future B-2 Spirit—was already on contract.

Stealth was developed and fielded under tight secrecy. Despite occasional leaks and glimpses, the stealthy aircraft would not appear in the open for almost 10 years. The public rollout of the B-2 was in November 1988. The F-117 was publicly revealed in April 1990, four months after its combat debut in the Panama invasion of 1989.

The immediate reaction to Brown’s announcement in 1980 centered on politics. Critics said the reason for the disclosure—coming three months before the elections in November—was to take the heat off President Jimmy Carter for having canceled the nonstealthy B-1 bomber in 1977. Carter and Brown were also accused of recklessly releasing a critical defense secret for political purposes.

Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who would defeat Carter in the election, joined in the criticism. Upon taking office, though, Reagan decided on a two-bomber approach, reinstating the B-1 but proceeding concurrently with what would become the B-2. Development of the stealth fighter, concealed by even greater classification than the B-2, continued apace.

Stealth came under severe attack in the 1990s by those who wanted to cut defense spending. The harsh judgments were not lessened appreciably by the outstanding performance of the F-117 in the Gulf War in 1991 and that of the B-2 and the F-117 in regional conflicts later in the decade. Production was sharply curtailed for both aircraft.

Click here or on the graphic above to view our full-sized infographic detailing US stealth aircraft through the years. Teaser graphic by Dashton Parham/staff.

THE STEALTH ADVANTAGE

Looking back from the perspective of 40 years, the significance of stealth has been enormous. No major countermeasures have emerged to negate it. The United States maintained its monopoly on the technology well into the 21st century.

Stealth, also known as “low observable” technology, still conveys an overwhelming combat advantage. It reduces exposure by a full range of signatures—electromagnetic, infrared, visual, and acoustic—but the main one is radar.

Stealth makes an object seem smaller on the radar screen by diffusing the reflection of the beam instead of bouncing it directly back to the radar receiver. Fighters and bombers with low radar cross sections can get close to their targets before they are detected. Nonstealthy aircraft pitted against stealthy opponents will almost certainly be shot down.

USAF’s F-15 Eagle, for example, was introduced in the 1970s as the world’s premier air superiority fighter. However, its radar cross section is 5,000 times greater than that of the F-35. Radar can pick up the F-15 more than 200 miles out, whereas the F-35 gets within 21 miles before it can be detected.

In recent years, the Chinese and the Russians have begun flying stealth fighters. US allies in Europe and the Pacific are partners in the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. For its stealth fighter needs, the US Air Force will rely on a mix of F-35s and a smaller number of older but even more capable F-22 Raptors. A new stealth bomber is in development.

Depending on budgets and politics, the Air Force anticipates a steady increase in the percentage of stealth aircraft in its combat units.

Secretary of Defense Harold Brown. Photo: Frank Hall/DOD

The roots of stealth can be traced to experimental aircraft of the 1940s, particularly Jack Northrop’s fabled YB-49 flying wing, which had smooth surfaces and rounded edges but no tail or fuselage. The all-wing configuration generated a relatively small image on radar screens, but that was of no great interest at the time, and the YB-49 was canceled in 1949.

In an obscure technical paper in the 1960s, Russian physicist Pyotr Ufimtsev theorized that electromagnetic waves bouncing off a flat surface could be calculated and used to estimate the return on radar. His findings were ignored by everyone, including the Russians.

By the 1970s, bombers and fighters were increasingly vulnerable to radar-controlled air defenses. In 1974, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force began a major effort to develop combat aircraft with low radar signatures.

Two of the principal aircraft companies, McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics, were occupied on the new F-15 and F-16 fighters so the tasking for stealth fell to Lockheed and Northrop. Both of them were awarded contracts in 1975 to build static models for the Experimental Survivable Testbed (XST).

Lockheed and Northrop took distinctly different approaches in their development of stealth. Ufimtsev’s paper on calculating radar refraction had been translated by the Air Force Foreign Technology Division in 1971, and Lockheed engineer Denys D. Overholser blended it into his own work for a computer program called “Echo 1.”

Echo 1, which computed the radar cross section from various angles over a range of wavelengths, was the enabling step to stealth for Lockheed. The catch was that the best available computers of the day could handle results only from flat surfaces. Thus, the calculations were spread out over hundreds of facets. The results were then combined to determine the radar cross section of the aircraft as a whole.

By contrast, Northrop relied on modeling of compound curves and shaping of the edges to achieve stealth. When the B-2 bomber was subsequently revealed to be a flying wing, the popular assumption was that it descended directly from Jack Northrop’s YB-49. Corporate heritage and culture no doubt played a part, but the engineers insisted that they started with a clean sheet of paper.

The XST models were mounted on poles and bombarded with electromagnetic waves to compare their radar cross sections. Northrop’s shaping approach worked well enough in deflecting radar beams from head on but was less effective than the Lockheed faceting when results from the sides and rear were considered.

Lockheed won the “pole off” and was selected in 1976 to proceed with a technology demonstrator to validate the pole test results.

In a separate venture—but with the additional objective of preserving Northrop’s stealth experience in the defense industrial base—DARPA in 1978 awarded Northrop a contract to design the Battlefield Surveillance Aircraft (BSAX). It was part of a broader program called “Assault Breaker,” intended to repel a massive tank attack in Europe. BSAX had to be stealthy enough to operate close to the forward edge of battle.

China’s J-20 displays its weapons bay during an air show in 2018. Another Chinese fifth-gen fighter, the J-31, is an F-35 lookalike and could be operational soon. Photo: Emperornie

INTO THE AIR

The Lockheed fighter was at least five years, sometimes more, ahead of the Northrop bomber in the stealth timeline. The next step after the XST pole tests was “Have Blue,” Lockheed’s manned technology demonstrator that entered flight testing in April 1977.

Have Blue was a sharp-nosed single-engine aircraft with swept wings and stark planar surfaces. It was 60 percent the size of the F-117 fighter, which would come afterward. The facets, set at unusual angles, scattered the incoming radar beams.

The F-117 made its first flight in June 1981. Strictly speaking, the F-117 was an attack aircraft rather than a fighter. It was intended to drop bombs, not engage in aerial combat. However, Gen. Robert J. Dixon at Tactical Air Command believed that an “F” (for fighter) designation would be more attractive to the best pilots better than would an “A” (for attack).

Northrop’s BSAX demonstrator, “Tacit Blue,” made its first flight in February 1982. It was one of the strangest-looking aircraft ever built. For reasons needful to testing of the surveillance radar it carried, Tacit Blue was essentially a box with low-observable features wrapped around it. As Northrop acknowledged, “Tacit Blue’s shape looked like a butter dish with wings.” Between 1982 and 1985, Tacit Blue made 135 test flights.

Northrop had been announced in 1981 as winner of the contract for the Advanced Technology Bomber, which would be designated the B-2 in 1984. The Tacit Blue test results built confidence in Northrop’s approach to stealth.

In the interval since Lockheed’s Have Blue, computing power had increased exponentially, and it was no longer necessary to estimate radar cross section by figuring the results for individual panels one by one. The faceting route to stealth was largely abandoned.

The B-2 would not make its first flight until July 1989, only six months before the F-117 Nighthawk flew its first combat mission.

THE STEALTH REGIME

Stealth imposed penalties and trade-offs—chiefly in speed and aerodynamics—on the F-117 and the B-2. They had no afterburners and were limited to subsonic speeds. Supersonic flight would have undercut the benefits of stealth by announcing the presence of the aircraft, with both a sonic boom and a big thermal signature from the hot-burning engines.

Mach speeds would also have consumed more fuel, already at a premium since internal carriage of the engines did not leave much space for additional fuel tanks. Gas-guzzling afterburners would have diminished the operational range.

The early stealth airframes were aerodynamically unstable. Flight was made possible by digital “fly-by-wire” technology that employed computers to constantly adjust the flight controls.

Stealth designers addressed seven types of observable signatures: radar, infrared, visual, contrails, engine smoke, acoustic, and electromagnetic. Reduction of the critical radar cross section was achieved with 90 percent by shaping of the aircraft and 10 percent by radar-absorbent materials.

The radar-absorbent coatings were fairly thick in places and added weight to the aircraft. Repairing the coating and applying fresh material after each mission was expensive and time consuming.

SHOTS IN THE DARK

Seeking to defuse criticism that his announcement of stealth had been for political gain, Defense Secretary Brown said in 1980 that because of leaks about stealth “in the last few days” to the press and television, “it is not appropriate or credible for us to deny the existence of the program.”

Indeed, there had been several recent leaks—at least one of them by a high Pentagon official and presumably with Brown’s blessing—but they were not the first disclosures of stealth.

The first public mention of stealth was in May 1975 by Defense Daily, a trade publication, which reported a design study for a “high Stealth-2 aircraft.” Under the heading “Lockheed ‘Stealth Fighter’,” the 1977-1978 edition of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft said that the Lockheed Skunk Works at Burbank, Calif., was building “a small ‘stealth fighter’ of which a primary feature will be low radar, infrared, and optical signature.”

Bits and pieces of the stealth story appeared intermittently in the 1980s. In particular, George Wilson of the Washington Post had good sources. In May 1982, he reported that the stealth bomber “is shaping up as a radically advanced flying wing.” That was confirmed in 1985 by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), who had seen a model of the airplane.

Secrecy about the F-117 was tighter than that surrounding the B-2, and the guesswork was less accurate. There was scattered speculation that the stealth fighter would be the “F-19.” That designation was used on a plastic model kit marketed by Testor in 1985. The picture on the box was a gracefully rounded delta shape. The forward fuselage resembled an SR-71. It attracted attention, but nothing about it was correct.

Testing of the F-117 was conducted at the Tonopah Test Range in the Nevada desert. Every week for eight years, pilots and ground crews from Nellis Air Force Base at Las Vegas flew up to Tonopah on Monday and returned home on Friday. Operations at Tonopah did not begin until an hour after sunset.

Security at Tonopah was breached in July 1986 when an F-117 on a night mission crashed near Bakersfield, Calif. Within a month, Wilson and the Washington Post reported that the crashed airplane was one of 50 stealth fighters flying out of Tonopah.

The Pentagon, deciding in 1988 that it could no longer justify the cost and effort to keep a total lid on the program, released a grainy photo of the F-117 but deliberately blurred its features to avoid revealing too much about the design. Wilson in the Post pronounced it “awkward looking.”

INTO OPERATION

The stealth aircraft were developed in secrecy—the F-117 as a “black” program and the B-2 as a “gray” one—and were not subjected to much criticism during their formative years. That changed with the rollouts of the aircraft.

Relaxation of security on stealth coincided with the end of the Cold War and top-to-bottom reductions in the defense program. The stealth aircraft, especially the B-2, were favorite targets for defense critics in Congress and the news media.

Strong performance in the Gulf War and in regional conflicts in the Balkans did not make a difference. Only 59 F-117s were delivered to the Air Force, and the B-2 total was capped at 21.

The next generation of stealth arrived with the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, an air-to-air fighter that first flew in 1997. The radar cross section of the F-22 is sometimes described as comparable to that of a golf ball, at other times as equal to that of a bumblebee.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—designed for both aerial combat and ground attack—flew in 2006. It has a single engine and is smaller than the twin-engine F-22.

Improvements in technology allowed the new stealth aircraft to escape some of the limitations of their predecessors. Supersonic speed is now an available option. The F-22 can reach Mach 2 and for the F-35 Mach 1.6.

The Air Force initially planned on 750 F-22s and 1,763 F-35s, but the F-22 program was terminated at 187 aircraft, and USAF so far has taken delivery of fewer than 200 F-35s. At present, stealth aircraft account for less than 20 percent of the fighter forces of US services.

The successor to the B-2 will be the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider. It will enter flight testing in 2021, but the number to be built is not yet decided. It is the fulfillment of the Long-Range Strike Bomber program, and in concept drawings, it has a strong family resemblance to the B-2.

PROLIFERATION

The US monopoly on stealth could not last forever, and it didn’t. Both the Russians and the Chinese flew stealth fighters in tests in 2010.

The Russians have 10 flyable prototypes of the Su-57—also known as the T-50, its internal name at manufacturer Sukhoi—at various stages of test and evaluation. Reports say the program is “troubled” and behind schedule, but Sukhoi claims that the first operational Su-57s will be delivered soon to the Russian air force.

The Chinese are well ahead of the Russians and have two stealthy fighters. The first was the J-20, which has some features akin to those of the F-22 and F-35 and draws heavily on technology presumed to be stolen from the United States. The J-31 has been called “an F-35 look-alike” and may soon be ready for mass production. The Chinese are reported to be working on a J-31 variant that could fly from an aircraft carrier.

In addition, the Chinese have a stealth bomber, the Xian H-20, in development. The predicted range would be sufficient to target US bases on Guam.

A significant source of stealth proliferation is the US itself. The F-35, operational with the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, will be operated by a dozen US allies in Europe and on the Pacific rim, and also Israel. About half of them have already begun receiving airplanes.

In a study for the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute in 2017, Maj. Gen. Mark A. Barrett and Col. Mace Carpenter concluded that stealth has become an “imperative” in the digital age. “The capability to significantly reduce the range and effectiveness of modern radars and other threat sensors is now a basic requirement for aircraft survival,” they said.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is a frequent contributor. His most recent article, “The Counter Revolution in Military Affairs,” appeared in the July/August issue.


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