The B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber is the priciest aircraft in the world

The B-2 Spirit is the US Air Force’s priciest aircraft at a jaw-dropping $2.1 bn per jet with an operational expense of $135,000 an hour. No wonder the B-2 is also a sought-after Hollywood star appearing in movies from Armageddon (1998) to Captain Marvel (2019).

Here are 10 cool secrets about the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber and a peek at the next-generation B-21 Raider.

Brie Larson, Samuel Jackson, and the B-2 Spirit star in Captain Marvel 

1. B-2, or Not B-2? 

Plans for the hyper-futuristic B-2 originated during President Jimmy Carter’s administration but it wasn’t until July 17, 1989, that the B-2 finally took flight. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union meant that the Cold War threat also largely dissolved, leading to concerns that the B-2 might already be a relic. Instead of the 132 B-2s initially ordered, only 21 were produced. But the Cold War soon turned into a hot war in the Middle East and beyond, so the B-2 has certainly seen its share of operations – most shrouded in secrecy and an enigmatic aura attributed to its cost and radar-evading capabilities.‍

2. Darth by Design?

Northrop invented all of its B-2 components from scratch – including tools, a software laboratory, special test equipment, and 3-D modeling and computer systems. The stealth bomber’s shape is designed to deflect radio beams with the large, flat areas on the top and bottom of the plane like tilted mirrors. And while we can’t confirm it, we’re betting the B-2 designers were fans of Star Wars (1977) as the futuristic cockpit shape reminds us of Vader’s helmet. Coincidence? We think not.

3. The B-2 is a record-breaker

The B-2 holds the record for the longest air combat mission in history, dating back to 2001 when the Spirit of America and five other B-2s entered Afghan airspace for a record-setting 44-hour mission. The B-2 made a quick pit stop with engines still running, then flew back to Missouri for a total of more than 70 consecutive hours. The B-2 has also engaged in operations from bombing ISIS targets to participating in NATO ops during the Kosovo conflict and supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

4. Stealth characteristics

The B-2’s ‘stealth’ features allow it to penetrate an enemy’s most sophisticated defenses. The B-2’s low observability is derived from a mix of reduced infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, visual, and radar signatures which make it tougher for sophisticated defensive systems to detect, track, and engage the B-2, according to the Air Force website. Although many aspects of the low observability process are classified, the B-2’s composite materials, special coatings, and flying-wing design all contribute to its stealthiness. Its low-observability also provides greater freedom of action at high altitudes, increasing its range and field of view for B-2 sensors.

5. Hollywood Cameos

Jason Isaacs – known for Star Wars and Star Trek – was delighted to find himself eye-to-eye with a B-2 bomber during the 1996 filming of Armageddon (above). The cast assembled in a giant California hangar and were told that, once the door closed, they’d be in the darkest, quietest place on Earth. The warning wasn’t for naught. Isaacs described the feeling as entering a disorienting ‘primeval swamp’. He’s not the only actor to find himself dwarfed by a bomber. The B-2 has appeared in Independence Day, Iron Man 2, Cloverfield, Airplanes, Rampage, and Captain Marvel. It seems the B-2 Spirit is Hollywood’s favorite cameo in the sky – often stealthily stealing the show.

6. B-2’s Spectacular Specs

Specs? We’ve got a few. How about the B-2’s wingspan of 172 feet (half the length of a football field), 69-foot length, and 17-foot height? The jet’s unrefueled range is about 6,000 nautical miles. The bomber can reach a high subsonic speed and an altitude of more than 50,000 feet and can drop conventional and thermonuclear weapons including up to eighty 500-pound class Mk 82 JDAM GPS-guided bombs or sixteen 2,400-pound B83 nuclear bombs. We could go on, but we’ll let Northrop Grumman do the talking.

7. B-2s were grounded for 6 months

The B-2 Spirits returned to the sky in May 2023 after an accident grounded the stealth bombers for about six months. The reason for the ‘safety pause’ isn’t altogether clear. Air Force Times said an in-flight malfunction forced a B-2 crew to make an emergency landing on the Whiteman Air Force Base runway in Missouri where firefighters extinguished flames. No one was injured but the fleet was grounded as a precaution. “The B-2 fleet could still fly missions on the orders of the President of the United States or in support of the National Command Authority,” General Thomas A. Bussiere, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command, said.

8. Trouble in Guam

The 2023 grounding of the B-2 fleet wasn’t the only safety concern in the jet’s history. In 2008, the Air Force said the first crash of a B-2 stealth bomber was caused by moisture in sensors and estimated the loss of the aircraft at $1.4bn. The jet pitched up, rolled, and yawed to the left before plunging to the ground at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, some 3,700 miles southwest of Hawaii. Both pilots ejected safely after the left wing made contact with the ground. According to the Air Force Times, no munitions were on board.

Northrop B-2A roll-out ceremony at Plant 42, Nov. 22, 1988

9. Secretive Plant 42

The US Air Force Production Flight Test Facility at Plant 42 in Palmdale, California is home to many of the world’s most advanced aerospace systems. It is operated by Lockheed, Rockwell International, Northrop, and Nero, and stretches across 6,600 acres (the government owns 85%). During the 1980s, Plant 42 was reportedly the major support facility for the U-2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird fleet. Later on, Northrop-Grumman set up the B-2 assembly line at Plant 42 (followed by the RQ-4 Global Hawk production line). On July 17, 1989, the first oddly-shaped, dark-colored B-2 Spirit took off from legendary Plant 42 and it remains the go-to base for repairs and the B-21 test flight. ‍

10. Next Gen B-21 Raiders 

The B-21 ‘Raider’ took its first test flight on November 10, 2023, lifting off from Plant 42 at sunrise. While the test flight wasn’t publicized, about three dozen aviation enthusiasts and amateur photographers were on hand. Shaped like a flying wing, the B-21s are the next step in the new fleet of long-range nuclear-capable stealth bombers built by Northrop Grumman, Reuters reported. The US government plans to buy about 100 B-21 Raiders. While the B-21 has a similar wing shape to the B-2, it incorporates advanced materials, propulsion, and stealth technology. The clincher? It will be produced in variants with – and without – pilots.

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