by David Noland
Bombers: Northrop B-2
The stealth bomber's features cost twice their weight in gold
By the numbers, the B-2 stealth bomber is a pretty ho-hum machine. It flies about as fast and high as the half-century-old B-52. Its range and bomb-load are actually less than the B-52's. The B-2's only eye-opening number is its price tag: $2.2 billion per plane. That works out to about $870 an ounce, double the price of gold.
Where did the money go? Toward the technology of stealth, the art of sneaking by an enemy's sophisticated air-defense system. Ironically, the B-2 has so far been used solely against enemies that don't even have sophisticated air defense systems. Never mind. It is an extremely cool-looking airplane.
Developed in Secrecy
Like the SR-71 and stealth fighter before it, the B-2 was developed in secrecy. Details were first revealed to the public in 1988, and it began test flying the next year. Initial plans for 132 B-2s were scaled back to 21 due to skyrocketing costs and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The B-2 entered service with the 509th Bomb Wing at Missouri's Whiteman AFB in 1993. Some B-2s have also been deployed to island bases on Guam and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. It has seen combat action over Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The B-2's flying-wing design harkens back to the legendary Northrop XB-35 and YB-49 flying wings of the late 1940s. By an astonishing coincidence, the B-2 has precisely the same wingspan as the YB-49: 172 feet.
Lacking the weight and drag of a fuselage and tail, flying wings are light and aerodynamically efficient. But they tend to have stability problems. The YB-49 crash that killed the original flying wing program was the result of just such an instability.
But the B-2 has something not even dreamed of in the days of the YB-49: four flight-control computers and a fly-by-wire control system. The B-2's fly-by-wire computers overcome the flying wing's inherent poor stability by continuously and automatically making split-second control adjustments, independent of the pilot.
Virtually Invisible to Radar
The B-2 has a number of design features to make it stealthy. The flying-wing shape itself is almost invisible to radar, a fact discovered with the YB-49. Instead of aluminum, the B-2 is made from low-reflective carbon-fiber composites. A special coating further reduces radar reflectivity. Placement of the engines on top dramatically cuts the plane's infra-red signature. The B-2 was even designed to inject special chemicals into its exhaust to eliminate the telltale white contrail.
True to its stealthy ways, the B-2 is rarely seen in public. A non-flying static structural test aircraft is on display at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. To see a B-2 in action, hang around Whiteman AFB, 65 miles southeast of Kansas City on U.S. Route 50. And look sharp.