| Share
Famous Planes: The world's notable passenger, fighter, bomber, experimental, and spy planes

Bombers: Northrop B-2

The stealth bomber's features cost twice their weight in gold

by David Noland
B-2 Spirit over the Pacific Ocean

Northrop B-2 Specs

  • Length: 69 ft
  • Wingspan: 172 ft
  • Empty weight: 158,000 lbs
  • Max weight: 336,500 lbs
  • Speed: 560 mph
  • Ceiling: 50,000 ft
  • Range: 6,500 mi
  • Engines: Four 17,000-lb thrust General Electric F-118 turbofans

Related Links

By the numbers, the B-2 stealth bomber is a pretty ho-hum machine. It flies about as fast and high as the half-century-old B-52. Its range and bomb-load are actually less than the B-52's. The B-2's only eye-opening number is its price tag: $2.2 billion per plane. That works out to about $870 an ounce, double the price of gold.

Where did the money go? Toward the technology of stealth, the art of sneaking by an enemy's sophisticated air-defense system. Ironically, the B-2 has so far been used solely against enemies that don't even have sophisticated air defense systems. Never mind. It is an extremely cool-looking airplane.

Developed in Secrecy

Like the SR-71 and stealth fighter before it, the B-2 was developed in secrecy. Details were first revealed to the public in 1988, and it began test flying the next year. Initial plans for 132 B-2s were scaled back to 21 due to skyrocketing costs and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The B-2 entered service with the 509th Bomb Wing at Missouri's Whiteman AFB in 1993. Some B-2s have also been deployed to island bases on Guam and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. It has seen combat action over Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The B-2's flying-wing design harkens back to the legendary Northrop XB-35 and YB-49 flying wings of the late 1940s. By an astonishing coincidence, the B-2 has precisely the same wingspan as the YB-49: 172 feet.

Lacking the weight and drag of a fuselage and tail, flying wings are light and aerodynamically efficient. But they tend to have stability problems. The YB-49 crash that killed the original flying wing program was the result of just such an instability.

But the B-2 has something not even dreamed of in the days of the YB-49: four flight-control computers and a fly-by-wire control system. The B-2's fly-by-wire computers overcome the flying wing's inherent poor stability by continuously and automatically making split-second control adjustments, independent of the pilot.

Virtually Invisible to Radar

The B-2 has a number of design features to make it stealthy. The flying-wing shape itself is almost invisible to radar, a fact discovered with the YB-49. Instead of aluminum, the B-2 is made from low-reflective carbon-fiber composites. A special coating further reduces radar reflectivity. Placement of the engines on top dramatically cuts the plane's infra-red signature. The B-2 was even designed to inject special chemicals into its exhaust to eliminate the telltale white contrail.

True to its stealthy ways, the B-2 is rarely seen in public. A non-flying static structural test aircraft is on display at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. To see a B-2 in action, hang around Whiteman AFB, 65 miles southeast of Kansas City on U.S. Route 50. And look sharp.

Bomber: Boeing B-52 Famous Planes Experimental and Spy Planes: Bell X-1

More from Famous Planes
Did you know?
Prior to 1979, only female names were used to name hurricanes. That year, the United States began alternating between male and female names for Atlantic hurricanes.