Meet the Averys, the Couple Who Flew the B-2 Bomber

How was your day at work, dear?

Jennifer and John Avery
Jennifer and John Avery flew the Northrop B-2 as active-duty pilots in the U.S. Air Force before flying the bomber in the Air National Guard, from which they retired as lieutenant colonels last September. Jennifer is the first woman to fly the B-2, and the only woman to fly the aircraft in combat (during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003).

Jennifer and John Avery, who recently retired from the Air National Guard, are the first husband-and-wife team to fly the B-2. (There have been two other married B-2 couples since, and they are not allowed to fly on the same mission.) The Averys spoke with Air & Space senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in November.

Air & Space: How would you describe Jennifer’s strengths as a pilot?

John: She’s always been humble and incredible. But she’s also been very cool under pressure. She was the chief of the mission-planning cell for a lot of the [509th Bomb] Wing’s combat sorties. When we had kids, she was able to pick up right where she left off. She has that knack of retaining all that information, and just being able to stop and start things again as a pilot, which I really respect.

How often did you talk about the B-2 during your downtime?

Jennifer: We probably talked about it more than we should. One of the perks of being married to another military spouse as well as them having the same profession is that we can bounce ideas off of each other. If we have a bad day, we both know where the other person is coming from.

What does it feel like to fly the B-2?

John: The B-2 is of course fly-by-wire. So they’ve basically programmed it so that it feels like a traditional heavy airliner.

Does preparing for a mission require tuning out everything else?

John: We’re human beings just like everybody else. But in combat of course, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking about your family. But we train to do this task from day one. So I think it’s only natural that you’re able to set aside everything else and absolutely have the laser focus on the mission.

How quickly do your flying skills degrade if you haven’t flown in the B-2 in a while?

John: We have a couple things to help us with that. Number one is the simulator, which we’re able to leverage to help knock the rust off. And then we also have the T-38 companion trainer, which believe it or not—at least the feel of—it isn’t too far removed from the B-2. They’re both Northrop products, so the actual stick is identical between those two airplanes.

Is refueling as nerve-wracking as it looks?

Jennifer: I enjoy aerial refueling, actually—I think because of the very technical hand-eye coordination.

Did you take anything to help you stay awake during the mission to Iraq?

Jennifer: For a combat mission, you definitely have the adrenaline. Where you find yourself getting tired is after you’re out of the country, and you’re headed back and it’s a long flight. All that adrenaline starts to ebb, and that’s when you find yourself exhausted. We had a lot of coffee, though.

How does the B-2 compare with flying the B-1?

John: They both have their advantages and disadvantages, and things that I love about each airplane. The B-1 is sort of like a small fighter. The low-level mission [it flies] is pretty incredible. We basically clock our timing at 540 ground speed, so that’s pretty remarkable. And nowadays the B-1 is just an incredible close-air-support asset.

The B-2—you only have two people—so it presents its own challenges. All the different multi-tasking you have to do: flying the airplane, talking on the radio, navigating, managing the weapons system, running the radar, integrating with the strike package. That has to be split between two people, so it can be kind of a challenge. But it’s also something you enjoy because there is only the two of you up there doing that instead of being split between four or five different people. They’re both great to fly, and they both have their advantages. So that’s kind of a tough question.

You’re now flying a Boeing 767 for FedEx. Are there days when you miss the B-2?

John: Of course I think every former military member misses it, but those two careers are similar. Both of these jobs are very mission-focused. FedEx is delivering 14 million packages a day. You have 100-plus planes flying into Memphis, sorting all the packages, and then flying back out. I think that’s a really cool mission to be a part of—much like the Air Force was.

Northrop B-2 in flight
Northrop B-2 in flight

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This story is a selection from the December/January issue of Air & Space magazine

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