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A wealth of stealth

The B-2 Spirit can penetrate an enemy’s most sophisticated defenses and threaten heavily defended targets. The Lab’s senior Air Force Fellow, Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Steeves, shares what it’s like to fly a 31-year-old, 160,000-pound nuclear-capable bomber.
April 20, 2020
B-2

A B-2 Spirit aircraft is prepped for launch at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.CREDIT: U.S. Air Force/Thomas Barley

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“Call signs are sometimes a far cry from Maverick and Iceman. But they were fictional Naval aviators in Top Gun, and this is real life in the Air Force.”- Geoff Steeves

By Geoffrey Steeves

The sirens go off, my eyes snap open, and I bolt upright in my bed.

“Report to aircraft,” blares from the command post speakers. “Repeat. Report to aircraft.”

The 1980s first-generation pager that is blasting on my hip confirms the message. It’s go-time.

It’s the middle of the night, and I’ve barely slept in the past 72 hours, in part because I’ve spent a great deal of time in the hangar readying the aircraft for combat (what we call “cocking it on”), but also because of the sleeping accommodations themselves. I’ve been in the confines of this small FEMA trailer with more than a few of my fellow B-2 pilots in very close proximity. Fortunately, this time I wasn’t paired up with Bear, whose call sign is fitting for many reasons, including his penchant for snoring like a large mammal.

There’s an identical trailer next to ours. Both are filled with rows of uncomfortable beds and heavy, stagnant air. June in Missouri at Whiteman Air Force Base is already oppressively hot and very humid. The temperature seems to exacerbate the smell of the industrial cleaner from the trailer’s bathroom, along with the locker room–like scent from so many bodies in the small space. But there’s also excitement in the air, and it’s palpable.

Despite our fatigue, we do not falter as the sirens blast. We hastily dress in our flight suits and throw on our cumbersome, fire-retardant aviation boots. I make eye contact with my fellow pilot SHIN. His call sign, an acronym for She’s Hot I’m Not, is a shout-out to his wife. Mine is Fletch because of the personality similarities I share, or so I’m told, with the Chevy Chase character. As you may have guessed, pilots don’t get to pick their own call signs, and as a result, the monikers are sometimes a far cry from Maverick and Iceman. But they were fictional Naval aviators in Top Gun, and this is real life in the Air Force.


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A B-2 Spirit, deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base, is prepared for a training mission at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, in Hawaii. B-2s are part of the Los Alamos–supported nuclear triad that is comprised of land-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear-capable submarines, and nuclear-capable aircraft. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Thomas Barley

We run as fast as we can to a row of waiting American-made white minivans (the pilots’ requests for Corvettes was denied). No one speaks, and all that can be heard are the sounds of boots hitting the ground and our heavy breathing.

Even with the surge of adrenaline and the gravity of the situation weighing on us, we know exactly what to do, and we do it very fast. Every detail has been planned and rehearsed to a T.

Along with several other pilots, I elect to take the shortcut to my van and leap over one of the concrete Jersey barriers that separate us from our vehicles. For SHIN, though, this shortcut exemplifies “the fog and friction” of war that famous military theorist Carl von Clausewitz spoke of in the 19th century. Not quite clearing the barrier, SHIN face plants on the other side. Scraped and bloodied, he’s already peeled himself off the ground and resumed his trajectory toward our van before I can get to him. We’ve lost only a few seconds, and he’s all right, so we’ll make fun of him later.

I jump in the front passenger seat and reach through the window to place a red-light siren on the roof of our van. SHIN is in the driver’s seat and turns the ignition and stomps on the gas. A wave of “disco lights,” as we call them, streaks across the dark tarmac, all headed to the row of hangars and awaiting B-2 stealth bombers. The vans pull up and park close to the hangars, but still far enough away to avoid being a hazard for the bombers’ impressive wingspan. We bolt out of the vehicles and sprint the rest of the way, two by two, to our designated aircraft. The Spirit of Washington, tail number 88-0332 is waiting for SHIN and me.


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A B-2 Spirit bomber taxis at sunrise. The plane’s unique shape is part of what makes it stealth. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Joel Pfiester

Approaching the aircraft, I hit the alert red slap switch on the nose gear. Immediately, the auxiliary power unit engines spool up, the flush-mounted entry door opens, and the crew’s entry ladder folds down to ground level. I scurry up the ladder and into the cockpit. SHIN takes a few seconds on the ground to brief the crew chiefs assigned to our aircraft and then joins me inside.

In short sequence we begin to hear transmissions on the aircraft radio. We continue running our checklist steps to prepare the aircraft for taxi and takeoff, while in parallel, we pull out our grease pencils and code books to authenticate the message and determine our next move. We’ve been given orders to start the engine, taxi, and take off, as has each set of pilots in the other B-2s alongside us.

One by one, each of the fully fueled approximately 300,000-pound B-2s joins the elephant walk en route to the runway.

We need to get the stealth bombers airborne as fast as possible. Exactly how fast we’ll make it is classified, but it’s pretty damn quick.

The B-2 is the only known stealth bomber in the world and is capable of dropping both conventional and nuclear payloads. Today, it’s the latter that we’re focusing on. This mission is a simulation that we call a nuclear generation. And we’ve got to be fast because in this scenario enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles are headed our way.

We do various simulations twice or more a year, as needed, depending on world events. Our goal is to demonstrate that we’re combat-ready for nuclear war.

I lead the line of B-2s, picking up speed on the runway. The nose of my aircraft angles upward and the wheels leave the ground.

Mission accomplished.


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Steeves pilots a supersonic T-38 Talon over the Rocky Mountains during a navigation training flight in December 2018. The T-38 is the companion plane to the B-2, ensuring pilots log training hours that would be too costly in the B-2. Photo: Geoff Steeves.

Nuclear capable and ready to launch

At $2.2 billion a copy, the B-2 stealth bomber is the world’s most expensive aircraft. There are just 20 B-2s total, compared with the fleet of more than 1,000 F-16s, for example. It’s also the world’s most strategic plane.

As expensive and unique as this aircraft is, what’s even more important than the plane itself is the weapons the B-2 can carry. The B-2 is the only aircraft in our nation’s inventory charged with carrying certain variants of the venerable, Los Alamos–designed B61 weapons—the Mod 7 and Mod 11 variants. It is also the only aircraft able to deliver the B83 thermonuclear bomb, which is the most powerful in the U.S. stockpile.

The two pilots onboard a B-2 carrying a full load of nuclear weapons are themselves approaching a firepower level on par with some of the world’s few nuclear powers. It’s a heavy responsibility for an Air Force captain, who is typically 25 to 28 years old when he or she completes the grueling, yearlong initial training course to learn to fly the B-2.

Many years after I graduated and became a B-2 pilot as a young captain, I found myself back at Whiteman Air Force Base in the training squadron again. This time, as a lieutenant colonel, I was the squadron commander responsible for the successful completion of this training. My squadron’s job was to create B-2 pilots and nuclear warriors. We did.

Of course, a nuclear weapon hasn’t been delivered in combat since Little Boy and Fat Man helped end World War II—and changed the world forever. But that doesn’t mean the B-2 and nuclear weapons aren’t being used. These national assets are used every day to both deter our enemies and assure our allies. If B-2 pilots can avoid logging combat hours, we’ve done our job.

Sometimes, though, the world needs a reminder. The B-2 made its combat debut in Kosovo in 1999 and since then has been a key player delivering conventional munitions in conflicts in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

We train every day and fly regularly in case we’re called upon again.


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A B-2 prepares to refuel above the Pacific Ocean. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Russ Scal.

B-2 basics

The B-2 is smooth and stable in flight thanks to its size and mass. It is 69 feet long and 17 feet high and has a 172-foot wingspan, which is slightly more than the width of a football field. Empty, it weighs approximately 160,000 pounds.

Its maximum speed is 630 miles per hour at an altitude of 40,000 feet, which is not much faster or higher than a commercial airplane flies at 460 to 575 miles per hour at a typical altitude of 31,000 to 38,000 feet.

One of the B-2’s most unique characteristics is its long-range ability. It can fly 6,000 nautical miles unrefueled and 10,000 nautical miles with just one air refueling. This long-range capability means the B-2 can project air power anywhere in the world. In other words, it provides global strike for America. The B-2’s longest continuous sortie to date is just over 44 hours. When the pilots landed after almost two days of nonstop flight, they both had beards.

My longest flight has been 24 hours, though a typical B-2 training sortie is about 5 hours. Needless to say, these long durations are challenging, but they are also very well planned. Aerospace physiology scientists develop plans for pilots to follow on long-duration flights. They consider the flight path, aerial refueling times (both pilots must be awake for these, as well as for takeoffs and landings), positions of the sun, and more to determine when pilots should nap and for how long. It is also recommended to stay well hydrated, as well as to eat protein and healthy snacks to avoid sluggishness from fatty, sugary, or greasy foods. Green chile is typically avoided.

The cockpit is small, with the two pilots sitting side by side. There is just enough room to stand, though not completely upright, and there is a microwave, which, out of all technological capabilities in the cockpit, seems to intrigue people the most. That, and the toilet, which is behind one of the seats. It’s at the end of a small space intended for a pilot to lie down, though you have the tough choice between resting your head next to a duct blasting out very hot air or next to the pungent chemical toilet.

Sleep on long-duration flights is a necessity for a pilot’s performance, but really there is very little downtime. Flying the B-2 is a demanding task, and the associated checklists, aerial refueling, radio calls, and more can, at times, be a lot for two pilots to manage. There is no flipping an auto-pilot switch and listening to music, sending texts, or reading a paperback.

Perhaps the most novel aspect of the B-2 is its stealth. Its unique batwing shape and special coating make it tough on radar operators. Its engines are inside the wing, concealing induction fans at the front of the engines and minimizing engine exhaust. This makes it difficult for thermal sensors to detect the B-2. By the time an enemy on the ground could see the B-2 flying above, it would be too late.


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B-2 bomber operations provide a visible demonstration of the Air Force's ability to project power globally and respond to any potential crisis or challenge. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Joel Pfiester

Confidence is key

It all works. We know because we’ve practiced, through both large-scale, multiday scenarios and half-day sorties.

I still remember one flight in particular. I was a fairly new captain and had only recently graduated from the initial qualification course to become a B-2 pilot when I was chosen to execute a nuclear mission evaluation. My fellow pilot and I were charged to deliver a B83 (minus the physics package) over rural Nevada. We shacked (directly hit) our target.

After we landed back at Whiteman Air Force Base and got back into the squadron, the wing commander called us into his office. He congratulated us and explained that our sortie was the most important thing the Air Force had done that day. It took a little time to sink in, but I soon understood he was explaining that I had just played a first-hand role in strategic deterrence.

I knew I could execute the B-2’s nuclear mission—and so did our enemies and allies.



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Steeves is greeted by his children, Eri and Leo, after returning from a routine T-38 training mission in March 2018. Photo: Brye Steeves.

ABOUT GEOFFREY STEEVES

Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey “Fletch” Steeves came to Los Alamos National Laboratory in July 2019 on a one-year Air Force Fellowship, which is considered part of his professional military education and a chance to learn more about Laboratory, NNSA, and DOE operations. Before reporting to Los Alamos, Steeves was the commander of the 13th Bomb Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base, home of the B-2 stealth bomber. Steeves, who earned his commission from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2001, has more than 2,000 hours flying the B-1 and B-2 bombers. His wife, Brye, is a communications specialist at the Laboratory and helped write this article. They live in Los Alamos with their two children.