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The Forgotten Story of How the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber Was Born

B-2 Stealth Bomber
A U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit "Stealth" bomber, 393rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., flies over the Pacific Ocean after a recent aerial refueling mission, May 2, 2005. The Bombers are deployed to Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, as part of a rotation that has provided the U.S. Pacific Command a continous bomber presence in the Asian Pacific region since February 2004, enhancing regional security and the U.S. commitment to the Western Pacific. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo) (Released)

The B-2 Spirit—also known as the Stealth Bomber—is an American heavy strategic bomber that boasts low observable stealth technology designed for penetrating dense anti-aircraft defenses.

According to aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman, the U.S. Air Force’s “B-2 stealth bomber is a key component of the nation’s long-range strike arsenal, and one of the most survivable aircraft in the world. Its unique stealth characteristics allow it to penetrate the most sophisticated enemy defenses.”

In addition, do take note that the B-2 also holds the record for the longest air combat mission in history. “In 2001, the Spirit of America and five other B-2s were the first to enter Afghan airspace for a record setting forty-four-hour mission,” Northrop Grumman writes.

“The aircraft’s performance is even more impressive in that the B-2 made a quick pit stop for a forty-five-minute crew and service change with engines still running. It then flew back to Missouri for another thirty-hour flight for a total of more than seventy consecutive hours,” it adds.

Northrop Imagination

So, how did this marvelous piece of aviation engineering come to be? According to Dario Leone at the Aviation Geek Club, look no further than the YB-35 and the YB-49—the forgotten fathers of the B-2.

“Conceived by Jack Northrop as a large wing-only, long-range heavy bombers, the Northrop XB-35 and YB-35 were experimental airplanes developed by the Northrop Corporation for the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) during and shortly after World War II. The aircraft used the radical and potentially very efficient flying wing design, in which the tail section and fuselage are eliminated and all payload is carried in a thick wing. Only prototype and pre-production aircraft were built, although interest remained strong enough to warrant further development of the design as a jet bomber, under the designation YB-49,” he writes.

“In fact two YB-35s were modified by replacing the four Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radial engines driving dual contra-rotating propellers with eight Allison TG-180 (J35) turbojet engines. USAAF approved the change order in June 1945 for the conversion program. Besides the jet engine installations, other modifications included the addition of four vertical stabilizers (two on each wing installed on both sides of the jet engine exhausts). The wings were fitted with four air dams extending forward from the vertical stabilizer to minimize the airflow down the swept wing (reducing lift) rather than over the wing. The completed aircraft were redesignated YB-49,” he continues.

The ‘First’ B-2: Building Upon Failures

There was, however, a crash involving the second YB-49 prototype.

“The remaining aircraft was modified with additional flight performance measuring instruments before tests were resumed. On March 15, 1950, an Air Force crew was testing the aircraft stabilizer response during a high speed taxi run when the nose wheel began a violent shimmy. Before the aircraft could be brought under control, the nose landing gear collapsed and the No. 1 YB-49 broke in two and was destroyed,” Leone writes.

Moreover, “Northrop developed a reconnaissance version of the YB-49, named YRB-49A, whose sole prototype made its first flight from Hawthorne, California to Edwards on May 4, 1950. Testing ended on this aircraft nearly one year later and after only thirteen flights. After the YRB-49A was scrapped in late 1953, the flying wing bomber concept would remain dormant until the appearance of the Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber nearly forty years after the last flight of the YB-49,” he adds.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Written By

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. CJ

    October 15, 2021 at 8:08 am

    The flying wing design was from the Horten Ho 229, A German aircraft which conducted flight during the end of WW2.

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