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.
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.