Barksdale Air Force Base, La. — The first B-2 Spirit to “slip the surly bonds of earth” celebrated its 25th anniversary of flight July 17, providing the Airmen and civilians who work with the airframe a chance to reflect on the strategic impact 20 aircraft can have in the entire Defense Department arsenal.
The image, first envisioned by World War II pilot and poet John Gillespie in his poem High Flight, is illustrative of the first Spirit to ever achieve flight.
The unique capability the B-2 brings to the Air Force is further amplified by the small fleet of 20 aircraft. But thanks to specialized maintenance crews, pilots able to fly grueling hours to accomplish missions, and devoted support networks, the mission of the Spirit has proven critical in every major aerial campaign since the 1999 Operation Allied Force.
Before the airframe proved itself ready for operation, it underwent a stringent test and validation period at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
“Early on we would tear the airplane apart and put it back together, then tear it apart and put it back together,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Brian Hornback, the former Air Force Global Strike Command command chief master sergeant and a B-2 crew chief. “Then we had engineers out there writing down everything we did and validating it.”
According to Hornback, who worked with the B-2 from production at the Northrop Grumman Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, to Edwards AFB, and finally Whiteman AFB, Missouri, the test phase was grueling. However, it prepared crews for the success that followed in 1999’s stealthy air campaign over Bosnia, originating from a third of the way around the world.
After the first operational aircraft delivery in 1993, the crews at Whiteman AFB still had to work hand in hand with their civilian technicians, to continue learning the ins and outs of the aircraft.
Drawing on the growing experience of specialized maintenance Airmen and teams of civilian engineers and maintainers, the crews built their readiness skills the same as they do today; they flew training sorties, used simulators, and became intimately knowledgeable with their aircraft. All the preparation and readiness was intended for the day they would receive the call to eliminate opponents’ anti-air defense networks for other allied aircraft to operate.
The first chance the B-2 had to prove itself operationally came March 24, 1999 with the start of Operation Allied Force.
“We worked in concert with our [technicians] to turn those six airplanes, two going out, two coming back, and two getting ready to go,” Hornback said on the operations out of Whiteman. “And, we were the only thing that could drop GPS munitions at the time.”
The success of the B-2 and its crews is evident in the numbers; it flew less than one percent of the total missions, but dropped 11 percent of the ordinance during the 78-day conflict, according to the AFGSC office of the historian.
“It felt pretty special [going] from a production center to recovering airplanes returning from combat,” Hornback said. “It was like watching your kid grow up and graduate.”
Over the course of the Spirit’s time in service, it has provided a pivotal global strike capability for the Air Force. It is able to slip undetected into hostile airspace and deliver crippling blows to targets unaware of their presence, resolutely proving its ability to provide a layer of strategic deterrence for threats that emerge anywhere in the world.