B-2 stealth bomber made its maiden flight 25 years ago

B-2 stealth bomber turns 25

The radar-evading B-2 stealth bomber has been called one of the greatest achievements in military technology.

With its distinctive “flying wing” design, the B-2 has a wingspan nearly as long as the Boeing 747 jumbo jet and yet it on radar it looks to be about the size of a tennis ball -- at least that's what the Pentagon says publicly.

On Thursday, the builder, Northrop Grumman Corp., celebrated the 25th anniversary of its maiden flight over the Mojave Desert on July 17, 1989.

The event at Northrop’s facility in the high-desert city of Palmdale included a reenactment of the bomber’s first flight. Speakers included Bruce Hinds, co-pilot on the first B-2 flight, and Brig. Gen. Steven Basham, co-pilot for the first B-2 combat mission.

Development of the aircraft began in secrecy in the early 1980s. The Air Force and Northrop went to great lengths to conceal even the smallest detail of the B-2 program.

The bombers were built at Northrop's 45-acre complex in Palmdale behind razor-wire fences.

Many suppliers had no idea they were making parts for the bomber. The government created dummy companies that ordered the parts, which were often picked up in the middle of the night by unmarked trucks.

The first B-2 rolled off the assembly line in 1988, the last in 1997. The Pentagon initially wanted 132 B-2s, but the end of the Cold War, budget constraints and other factors brought the buy to only 21, with the cost escalating to $2.1 billion per plane. The fleet now numbers 20 after one B-2 crashed in Guam in 2008.

The task of keeping the B-2 flying has been a boon to Southern California and Northrop. Every seven years, the planes fly into the facility for a year-long, $60-million overhaul. Last month, the Air Force awarded Northrop a $9.9-billion contract to maintain and upgrade the B-2. 

At its height, the B-2 program involved about 40,000 employees at aerospace facilities all over the country, including about 15,000 in the Southland, Northrop has said. It continues to provide work to about 1,200 people, many of them at Northrop's facilities in Palmdale.

Despite its capabilities, the bomber has drawn criticism from military industry watchdogs. The Air Force has been maligned for decades over the costs and the extensive maintenance the B-2 requires. Last year alone, the Air Force spent more than $1.2 billion upgrading, maintaining and overhauling the fleet.

For each hour a B-2 was in the air, it spent 47 hours on the ground undergoing maintenance. A B-2 mechanic has 750 technical manuals to reference to fix the plane.

The Pentagon maintains that it needs the B-2, but plans are underway for the next generation of stealth bombers.

Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will give aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. a $420-million tax break if it helps build the new stealth bombers in California. The governor’s office also committed to a pass a similar bill for Northrop when the Legislature returns in August.

Lockheed and partner Boeing, Co. are competing with Northrop for a potential $55-billion Air Force contract to supply a fleet of up to 100 next-generation aircraft. The highly classified program will build the replacement for the B-2 and could bring hundreds of jobs to Palmdale. 

 Twitter: @chadgarland

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