- Following a recent crash, the U.S. Air Force has temporarily grounded the B-2 Spirit bomber fleet.
- The planes are still cleared to fly in emergencies.
- Nearly three decades old, the B-2 is slated for a replacement: the new B-21 Raider.
Last week, the Air Force grounded its entire fleet of B-2 Spirit bombers after a malfunction that resulted in a crash landing earlier this month; no aircrew were injured. In nearly three decades, this tiny fleet of bombers has lost only one plane to an accident.
An investigation is ongoing. Here’s a timeline of what we know so far.
December 10: B-2 Bomber Damaged, Emergency Landing
Due to an undisclosed malfunction, a B-2 was damaged on the runway at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri during routine operations on December 10, forcing the crew to make an emergency landing. The aircraft caught fire shortly after the landing, “and the base fire department extinguished the fire,” the Air Force said in a statement to the press.
December 12: Runway Closed, Damage Assessed
The base runway has been closed since December 12. The aircraft is currently visible via satellite view on Google Maps. The big bomber ran off the runway and onto the grass; emergency services vehicles, base pickup trucks, and other equipment surround it. Neither the runway nor the grass appear to be singed by fire, so the onboard fire may have been comparatively minor.
Interestingly, the B-2’s twin air intakes and exhausts are covered with some sort of metallic, reflective foil. The purpose of the foil is unknown, but may be used to obscure some aspect of the airplane’s stealth characteristics. It could also be related to the onboard fire.
December 19: B-2 Bombers Confirmed Grounded
In the wake of the crash, the Air Force has temporarily grounded all 20 of its B-2 Spirit bombers, which are normally based at Whiteman Air Force Base (with the exception of one aircraft based at Edwards Air Force Base in California).
According to Air & Space Forces Magazine, the B-2s can still fly “if directed by the commander in chief to fulfill mission requirements.” In other words, the fleet is still available to fly in emergencies, as it did during the 2017 airstrikes against ISIS fighters in Libya. The B-2s could also fly nuclear deterrence missions, considering they’re one of only two nuclear-capable bombers in the U.S.—the B-52H Stratofortress being the other.
Past B-2 Incidents and a Future Replacement
The U.S. Air Force originally planned to buy 132 B-2s, but the aircraft—developed at the tail-end of the Cold War—suddenly found itself without a mission. The purchase was trimmed to just 20 planes, plus a prototype that would be converted into a combat-ready aircraft. This service further cut down this fleet of 21 planes to just 20 in 2008 after a crash that destroyed the aircraft Spirit of Kansas.
Another crash in 2010 severely damaged Spirit of Washington. The plane, which experienced a fire so severe it melted aluminum and turned cables into ash, was eventually judged to be repairable. The plane spent a year on the island of Guam, the site of the crash, where it underwent initial repairs; then, it made the flight across the Pacific to Palmdale, California, where full repairs were made. The repairs to the bomber, nicknamed Lazarus, totaled approximately $110 million, and the plane is fully operational today.
Starting in the late 2020s, the B-2 is scheduled to be replaced with the upcoming B-21 Raider bomber. The B-2 fleet is old, with an average aircraft age of 26 years, and the plane is expensive to fly and maintain. The B-21 Raider is expected to be cheaper on both counts, and the service will buy at least 100 bombers, if not 140 or even 200. If all continues to go well with the B-21 program, the older bombers should be phased out in the next 10 years—if not sooner.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.