If Batman had a plane, the B-2 would be it. Nigh on 15 years ago, my good friend (and boss at the time) Brad and I drove to Atlanta to take the DSW Group’s first Delphi training course. We pulled into the hotel parking lot and were unloading our stuff when we heard an aircraft pass overhead. I looked up and, about 1000′ above (though it seem much closer) was a B-2.
I was all pumped and, though I had yet to make my first visit to a Dave & Busters, see my first Atlanta Braves game, or take a single training session, the trip was already worth it.
The B-2 Spirit is, without a doubt, the most advanced bomber on the planet. Its design eschews the more traditional “fuselage with wings and a vertical stabilizer” in favor of something more akin to a flying boomerang.
But it’s not a new design. It actually has its roots in Northrop’s Flying Wing prototypes from the 1940’s. The YB-49 prototypes look strikingly similar to today’s B-2 (which is probably why Northrop was named the prime contractor 30 years later), though its ancestor began its life with piston engines in a “push” configuration, much like Convair’s B-36 Peacemaker.
In the 40’s, flying wings were considered too unconventional, and it didn’t help matters when Northrop’s prototype suffered structural failure and cart-wheeled down the runway, killing the test pilot and four crew members.
But down the road, when stealth technology became as much of an advantage in the air as speed and maneuverability, Northrop’s design assumed a new importance.
The B-2, which first flew on July 17, 1989, is the most difficult plane in the world to detect on radar. Its body is coated with radar-absorbing materials and paint. The body is very smooth, lacking sharp edges that tend to reflect radar. Most of the really cool stealth stuff is still classified, but I’ve read somewhere that the radar cross-section of this 172-foot-wide bomber is that of a small bird. I don’t know for sure, but that’s what I’ve read.
The B-2 specializes in the delivery of precision munitions such as laser- and GPS-guided bombs, cruise missiles, and “unconventional” weapons. There are only 20 in service…well, 19 as the Spirit of Kansas crashed last year…and each was purchased with a check of nearly $2 billion. But they haven’t been garage queens, seeing significant use in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
I still think the B-1 is the most beautiful plane in the inventory, but you can’t knock a plane that’s invisible to the electronic eye. If you ever have a chance to see one at an airshow, please make the effort to go. Heck, you paid for it. Just don’t try to catch one with your backyard radar setup…that ain’t happening.