When You’ve Only Got 20 B-2 Bombers…

...keeping all of them flying becomes important

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Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Alexandra M. Boutte

Grounded following a fire nearly four years ago, the B-2 "Spirit of Washington" lands following its first training flight since the blaze, at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., Dec. 16.

When one of a B-2 bomber’s four engines caught fire during what the Air Force called a “routine” engine start while on the ground at Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base in February 2010, the service said it was no big deal.

“Maintenance and ground crews quickly extinguished the engine bay fire, which the 36th Wing Public Affairs Office described as minor,” the Guam-based Pacific Daily News reported the next day.

So it might come as a surprise to learn that the $2 billion plane only rejoined its flock Dec. 16 — nearly four years after the blaze. “It was a very cool experience to see the excitement in the maintainers when an aircraft many of them thought would never fly again returned to service as part of the 509th Bomb Wing,” Colonel Chase McCown, the bomb wing’s maintenance chief, said in an Air Force report on the plane’s resurrection.

The stealth bomber burned in a stealth fire that did far more damage than the service initially thought.

The delay says a lot about the difficulty of repairing the bat-like, composite-winged plane, and raises questions about the military value of an aircraft that can be put out of service for so long by a single on-the-tarmac emergency. Older planes—largely made of metal, which is far easier to repair—could have been returned to service much more quickly.

The fire was one of three that the Air Force studied “to identify new tools and techniques that will allow firefighters to more efficiently cut, penetrate and extinguish burning aircraft composite materials,” a 2010 briefing said. Such fires, the briefing said, are challenging because:

—Hidden interior fires are difficult to extinguish

—Composites smolder and reignite

—Fuselage penetration is virtually impossible with an axe and difficult with a K-12 [fire-fighting saw].

But you have to give credit to the Air Force, which went to extraordinary lengths to return the B-2, named the Spirit of Washington, to the skies (a plane apparently gets a name when its cost approaches that of a warship).

Without hundreds of retired B-2s available as a handy source of spare parts, getting the plane flying again was difficult. Some parts came from spare parts depots, while others had to be built from scratch. “We recognize how much this means to the warfighter, to have this aircraft back in your hands,” said David Mazur of Northrop Grumman, the company that built the plane—and helped repair it—in the Air Force account.

One challenge the rebuilding crew faced was how to remove charcoal left over from the fire from the aircraft’s sensitive radar-absorbing skin without causing additional damage. The solution: spray pelletized dry ice on it, which removed the residue as it melted.

Bottom line, according to the Air Force: the Spirit of Washington is airborne once again, “buttressing the United States’ ability to deliver conventional and nuclear munitions, penetrate air defenses and threaten effective retaliation.”

No word yet on the cost of the repairs, although we’ve asked.



Melt Bomber: the only one of the 21 B-2s to crash happened on Guam in 2008 shortly after takeoff. Both crew members ejected safely. Two years later, a second B-2 was damaged in an engine fire at the same base.