B-2: The Inside Story

American airpower’s “Man of Steel”

B2: Stealth at War (Full Episode)

The B-2 pilots were tasked with “knocking down the door.” It was 2011, and the United Nations had established a no-fly zone over Libya in response to the rising violence of the civil war. “That means the B-2 was assigned to take down key targets on Night One of the [military] campaign,” says Rebecca Grant, the world’s foremost civilian expert on the stealthy bomber. “Libya is an example of how much the B-2 is in demand. Its missions were classic B-2: Make sure that [Muammar] Gaddafi could not use the remnants of his air force to challenge NATO aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone.” 

The full story is profiled in B-2: Stealth at War, on the Smithsonian Channel

On March 18, 2011, three B-2s—their firepower equivalent to 100 conventional aircraft—were sent to bomb Gaddafi’s airfields and hangars. After flying 12 hours to the Libyan border, it was time to get stealthy. The pilots pressed the “pen” (for “penetration”) button (the size of a letter on your computer keyboard) in the cockpit, and protruding antennae were retracted, and navigation lights were tucked into diamond-shaped panels. (Along with other classified doo-dads we don’t know about.) The B-2’s radar signature immediately dropped to that of a seagull. 

But suddenly there was a problem: In one of the B-2s, a one-ton bomb jammed in its rotary launcher. The pilots of the 509th Bomb Wing rotated the launcher to discharge the next bomb—which also failed to dislodge. As did the third.

No matter, though. Even with one aircraft’s ordnance compromised, the three B-2s eliminated all 45 of Gaddafi’s hardened aircraft shelters. The three aircraft then flew another 12 hours back to Whiteman Air Force Base, concluding the B-2’s fourth combat mission.

Watch the episode above to learn more about the B-2’s previous combat missions, starting with the 1999 Kosovo War. B-2s were also deployed to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That assignment—44 hours of continuous flight—is still the longest non-stop bombing mission in history.

“The B-2 is viewed as the ‘Man of Steel’ of American airpower,” says Grant. “You send the B-2 on a mission, and it gets everyone’s attention. This is a formidable weapon.”  

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