PALMDALE, Calif. - Crowds gathered along the flightline at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 July 17 to watch the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the Spirit of Arizona, recreate her maiden flight 25 years later.
The anniversary flight followed a ceremony featuring former B-2 pilots and program leaders. Creating the backdrop for the stage, the Spirit of Georgia, air vehicle 129, was accompanied by the Northrop-built N-9MB Flying Wing from the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, Calif.
“Our employees here have had the benefit of seeing programs go from development into production in both the manned and unmanned systems, today we are here to honor one of those,” said Andy Reynolds, Northrop Grumman vice president of manufacturing operations and Palmdale site manager. “We as a center of excellence now have multiple programs here and our center itself has over 3,000 people here at the site today.”
The next speaker, Northrop Grumman vice president and B-2 program manager, Dave Mazur, cruised in on the Orange County Choppers custom-built B-2 Stealth Bike affectionately known as “The Spirit of Innovation.”
“This is not going to be the last anniversary because I think everybody knows that the B-2 is going to be in the inventory for at least another 40 years,” said Mazur. “Today’s ceremony is truly about the partnership between Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Air Force as it develops, produces and today sustains this unique platform called the B-2.”
Mazur then made a special presentation to Tommy Lasorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers – and the “ultimate authority on what it means to be safe at home.”
Lasorda was presented with a commemorative baseball bat bearing the 25th anniversary emblem and an embroidered B-2 flight jacket. Over the last few years, he has had the opportunity to speak at 40 military bases around the world.
The next speaker, Bruce Hinds, was the first B-2 chief test pilot, flying from 1982 to 1991. Hinds shared what it was like to fly the Spirit of America in that very first flight. Hinds had served in the Air Force as a test pilot. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and Edwards AFB, he continued to serve until he was offered a promotion as a staff officer in Washington.
“I figured I’d be a better test pilot than I would a staff officer so I decided to retire,” said Hinds.
It wasn’t long after his retirement that a friend he believed to work for NASA, requested his resume to submit to a potential employer. At the interview that followed, he was asked about his philosophy towards flight test and his prior experience as a test pilot.
Hinds asked the men conducting the interview who they were, where he would be working and what he would be doing. To all of his questions, they replied “can’t tell you.”
“With an offer like that, how could you refuse it?” said Hinds. He later discovered that he had been interviewed by the chief engineer, manager of test and deputy program manager for the B-2 program at Northrop Grumman.
After receiving his clearance, he was shown a mock-up of the design and asked, “Didn’t you have enough money to put a tail on it?”
After years of working in labs, simulators and test beds, he gained confidence in that “using Jack Northrop’s design solving the lift equation with wing area was the way to go.”
The design proved to be very efficient, able to travel for long amounts of time carrying a large payload.
July 17, 1989, Hinds took-off in the B-2 and headed towards Edwards AFB. After two hours of test maneuvers, they found that the airplane’s reaction was very, very similar to what they saw in the simulators.
“I think the Air Force has been very pleased with what we’ve got and it’s going to be around a long time,” said Hinds. “This is just starting to get all the new systems that can be on here to really be a great advantage to our nation.”
Brig. Gen. Steven Basham, Headquarters, Pacific Air Forces director of Strategy, Plans and Programs, with his co-pilot, took the B-2 into its first combat flight over enemy territory.
Basham expressed that he could only imagine how Hinds felt during that first flight. He imagined Hinds being on “high alert just in case one of those calculations wasn’t quite right.”
“I believe I had a somewhat similar feeling when Col. Eric Single and I flew that for the first time. Though I had great trust and confidence in the technology and engineering behind the B-2′s development, I can still remember thinking, and maybe saying out loud, ‘I sure hope this stealth stuff works,’” said Basham.
It was March of 1999 and they were headed into the Kosovo War. Basham and Single watched the aircraft come to life with flickering screens and the display showing the sixteen, 2,000-lb JDAM bombs they were carrying.
Basham recalls thinking about the significance of that flight just before take-off, reflecting on the American ingenuity they were about to put to the test. As they approached the Serbian border, they had been awake for 20 hours and the adrenalin was still pumping.
The sun set and they could see the lights of Serbia with Belgrade in the distance.
“Our thoughts turned to the surface-to-air missile defense of Serbia, which we knew were active and the enemy fighters we knew to be airborne,” recalled Basham. “The next 45 minutes, we put stealth technology to the test and we worked our way, seemingly invisible, inside Serbia setting ourselves up for the first weapons drop.”
After returning home, Basham sat in his recliner with a cold beverage and turned on the news. He was amazed to see footage of fires in Serbia that were likely caused by the bombs he had just delivered. For him, the term “global strike” had just taken on a new distinction.
The final speaker of the ceremony, Duke Dufresne, is the sector vice president of operations for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.
“When the first flight finally came around, we were overjoyed and it provided just a brief pause for us to reflect on what we’d accomplished,” said Dufresne. “But, the pause was really, really brief, like minutes, and then we all hurried back inside and got back to work because we knew the goal wasn’t to perform first flight, the goal was to deliver this capability to Whiteman AFB [Missour], which we did just 4.5 years later.”
He added that the B-2 program will always be the greatest accomplishment he was associated with.
Among those in the audience were Dr. John Cashen the original B-2 chief scientist and B-2 program manager, Jim Kinnu. Today they are known as the “Fathers of Stealth.”
“I basically put the first line to paper on the shape of the B-2, this was in 1979,” said Cashen. “The B-2 does something no other airplane does. It carries 50,000-lbs, 6,000 miles and it’s been shown and proven to be invulnerable to air defenses, which is what we designed it for.”
He added that they never knew it would do what it was supposed to until the airplane actually flew because it was too big to model in full scale.
Kinnu was brought into the B-2 program to submit the proposal to the Air Force in competition with Lockheed Martin in 1980.
The next year, the contract was awarded for what was initially called the Advanced Technology Bomber.
“I headed the team for eight years, solved problems every day, solved challenges that other programs never saw because this technology was brand new,” said Kinnu. “That’s what I’m proud of most – that we gave our nation a weapon that deters people from wanting to start a war. We protect freedom all over the globe.”
But perhaps the biggest challenge for employees like Kinnu was the secrecy necessary to protect the project.
“On the first day when it rolled out my wife was here to see it. It answered a lot of questions,” said Kinnu. “I’m very emotional about that because she had to put up with a lot.”
Members of Jack Northrop’s family were also in attendance that morning.
“It’s seeing my Grandpa Jack’s plane, his dream come true, seeing the wing fly. For us to see it fly is just breath-taking,” said Northrop’s granddaughter Janel Northrop Russell. “His YB-49 was a beautiful plane and it flew out here at Edwards. The history of that is just amazing. Forty years later, from when it was scrapped, we have the B-2.”
What Russell finds particularly interesting is the technological advancements that have resulted from her grandfather’s wing design.
“We have computers to come up with the exact measurements of the plane and my grandpa did that mathematically,” said Russell. “The B-2 is a fuel efficient plane, it is stealth and it is the plane of today, the future, which at that time was a dream in development.”