Spirits in the Sky, and on the Ground: My Two Days at Whiteman

A B-2 Spirit stealth bomber takes off, flying south, at Whiteman AFB, MO, October 30, 2009. Photo: SrA Kenny Holston

At the end of last October, I became the first non-American journalist in years to visit Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. I was there to write this piece, published today in the Mail on Sunday's Live Magazine section, about Whiteman's fleet of B-2 Spirit stealth bomber aircraft, and the RAF exchange pilots who've been flying it. Over the course of the two days I spent at Whiteman I saw, heard and experienced much, much more than I was able to cram into those six Live pages, or into the further page which will run in February's edition of Defense Technology International; in particular, there are thousands of words of fascinating interviews I've not been able to use yet. So if you're a commissioning editor and could use any of it, I'm very much open to offers. In the mean time, I thought I'd publish a few extracts here.

All photos by Senior Airman Kenny Holston except where otherwise noted. 

Brigadier General Robert Wheeler on his way to fly a B-2

Brig Gen Wheeler is the Commander of the 509th Bomb Wing. I interviewed him in his office in the headquarters building at Whiteman, across a table on which sat a model of B-2 tail number 88-0329, the Spirit of Missouri - the aircraft which Wheeler had flown, with RAF Squadron Leader David Arthurton, into Darwin in 2006. "It was really cool," he told me, "because, here I am, an American, and a Brit, flyin' a B-2 into Australia. And the point is, Holy shit: we're in this worldwide fight against Al Qaeda and terrorism, we came from the same heritage, and here we are, working as a team."

AB: You were supposed to go up for a flight in a B-2 yesterday, but there was a thunderstorm so you didn't.

Gen Wheeler: We could've, but it wasn't worth the risk.

AB: You have a small number of aircraft, and about 80 pilots, so there'll be very few opportunities to fly the B-2. Is part of your job about keeping everybody happy?

RW: Yes and no. We're upgrading the airplane with a new radar, and all that's neat, but it hurts us for availability of airplanes. However, the T-38's there too - I flew this week in the T-38 - so I can keep my skillset up in that one too. I basically went up, did acrobatics, did some other stalls and falls we call basic flying manouvers, and then came back and did different single-engine approaches - did that so that I don't hurt my skillsets. Now, I'm leaving tomorrow, I'm gonna be gone for a few days; I will take... Honestly: most people open up the newspaper when they're in a commercial airplane: I open up some of my checklists, and I review them. I have to constantly do that because I still maintain my instructor pilot status in [the B-2]. I do teach occasionally in that airplane, and it's important to me to have that skillset because it helps me make decisions when there's problems, and when there's maintenance issues I like to have a better understanding.  

The flags of this monument near the main gate at Whiteman are of the states (and other entities - one's called Spirit of America and another Spirit of Kitty Hawk) the individual B-2s are named after.

AB: What are the sort of qualities you're looking for in the people who work here?

RW: They come from different cultures. I bring about a 40 per cent mix - and I've been here three times, as a Squadron Commander, as an Ops Group Commander and now as a Wing Commander, and we've kind of held to this - 40 per cent fighter guys that come outta single or dual seat airplanes; 40 per cent bomber guys, that have heavy bomber experience, and then 20 per cent from AMC or the cargo side. Each culture brings in its different strengths and weaknesses, and we blend that here. It actually works very well. It creates an emotional environment sometimes, but it also makes people struggle to be better. So, if you will, that competition is what we look for, and an ability to compete. We look for basic things. They have to get along with each other when we bring 'em in here, because if you can't sit in an airplane for 40-plus hours together and get along, then you're gonna have a problem. You can't have the lone-wolf type scenario - you've gotta be able to work with a team. You have to have the basic flying skillsets, and you have to have leadership qualities, and a competitive edge to make you better. Now, how we do this is we go out and we ask for volunteers, because the program is quite intense. We make you... We grind you down. We constantly work, and there's very little time off in many cases, and in that time off is study. We have to have all the missions across the spectrum of conflict - from dropping a single bomb on a person, to a strategic fight - that they have to be good at. So, across the spectrum of conflict, these aviators, maintainers, weapons-loaders, planners, support functions, all have to understand that whole context. 'Cos it depends on what our nation's leadership calls upon us to do. We never know what's gonna happen next with the limited number of these assets.

RAF pilots Sqn Ldr Jon Killerby (left) and Flt Lt Adam Curd in front of B-2 Spirt of Mississippi; October 31, 2009

The second and third Britons to fy the B-2 happened to both be at Whiteman during my visit. Most other postings in the RAF/USAF exchange programme don't have an overlap, but Whiteman is a front-line base and the pilot cadre needs to be at full strength all the time, so Sqn Ldr Killerby stayed on active duty until his replacement, Flight Lieutenant Adam Curd, was fully trained. I spoke to the pair over lunch in The Mission's End, the bar/restaurant/meeting room complex on the base. 

AB: What's the process from arriving on the base? What do they do to work you up from scratch to flying the B-2?

Flt Lt Curd: Well, 'cos the Brits who arrive here probably haven't flown the T-38 trainer either, they'll work the guys up on that first. So that takes a few weeks.

AB: Is that similar to anything you might've flown - to a Hawk, maybe?

AC: It's fairly similar to a Hawk in many respects. Different number of engines, but the sort of flying you do in it is very similar. Some of the techniques that the American guys will have learnt as they go through training are different from the way we teach them in the UK, but that's actually quite enjoyable, to do it a different way rather than having to hark back to your own training days and trying to remember what you should've known. So you do your T-38 workup first, then, as you can imagine on an aircraft like the B-2, there's quite a prolonged ground school period. They start off in a fairly sensible way, with the systems - the basic things that you need to have on an aeroplane, such as structure, engines, hydraulic systems, fuel systems, and all that sort of thing. Then you work from there, and you're introduced to the bit more complicated stuff, such as how exactly the flight controls work, and the avionics, and so once you've got a basing in that they start putting you into various sorts of simulators, and give you problems with it, so you can sort of investigate and start getting used to dealing with problems in the aeroplane. Then you go from there and start introducing weapons, tactics, that sort of thing - and that takes a fair bit of time, because it's actually quite a complicated aeroplane altogether, so it takes a fair bit of time to just get through the important bits. And then, once you've done the ground school phase, you then go on to the flying school phase. By that stage, actually, because the simulators are very good, you know what you're expecting. There shouldn't really be any huge surprises when you get in the aircraft first time, which makes a lot of sense as there aren't that many of them and they cost a great deal of money - so you don't want to waste your time airborne in them trying to learn something you could have learned in the simulator. But, obviously, flying is vital. And then you just have simulated problems in the aeroplanes, you go and do bomb runs, you go and do formation flying, tanker flying, taking on fuel, and just... everything that you have learnt about you go and apply, until they're happy that you're at a suitable state. It's events-based training. And then you graduate and go to the squadron.

A B-2 seconds before wheels-up; Whiteman AFB, October 30, 2009.

Squadron Leader Jon Killerby: My background in the RAF before was as an instructor, and I've been lucky enough they've made me an instructor here in the B-2, and the T-38. That events-based training is kind of exactly how we run our training programmes in the UK, so there's a lot of similarities between the two, and the transition is not a million miles from what we do. There's a slight language barrier in that you talk to Air Traffic Control sometimes, and they won't understand what I'm saying. [Chuckles] I pronounce 'altimeter' differently. I'm gonna go back now and they'll not be able to understand a word. They don't use QFE and QNH, of course, so if you mention that to anybody on the radio they just don't know what you mean. But we did fly the B-2 to the UK, while I was here. In August of '08 we brought two over to Fairford.

AB: And you dropped some practice munitions on the way.

JK: That's right - we went to Wainfleet. And actually I led that mission over, with Jason Armagost, and it was great - I was in the formation lead, and I was doing all the radios with the Scottish and London military, and they understood what I was saying! Joking aside, there are very few differences, really, in the way the system is run and the way everybody does business. It's great the way they keep this and the other exchanges - I think there's over 750 RAF people in the States, on various things - liaison jobs, exchange officer jobs, that kind of thing.

AB: What's it like living out here? Your families come out, you're here for three years - do they enjoy it?

JK: It's great. We've traveled through 39 states while we've been out here: we wanted to do 50 but we haven't got them all done. And the quality of life is brilliant. The people here are very pro-military across the country, which, coming from the UK, sometimes, sadly, is a really nice surprise. You'll go to a football game and they'll do military appreciation, where everybody in the military stands up and everybody claps. While I've been out here I read reports of the incident in Peterborough, which, you know, I was just mind-boggled at. But they're very well-supported and loved by everybody. I don't think I've heard a bad word said about the military. And a lot of people are surprised what we're doing here: 'You're flying the B-2?!'

Ken Gallagher explains the B-2 to a Northrop-sponsored robotics team. Photo: SrA Jason Huddleston  

Ken Gallagher is Site Manager for Northrop Grumman at Whiteman. A former USAF pilot and an engineer, he's been involved in the B-2 program since December 1983, and at first his job was to ensure that the design team took account of the needs of maintainers. In 1999, Gallagher and his team "wrote the book" on what a B-2 depot should be ("Nobody quite knew what a depot was for a B-2," he says. "Typically when one thinks of a depot, one thinks of corrosion; one thinks of the skinwear points on a vehicle; one thinks of mod upgrades on the vehicle. On this airplane, of course, it's very, very different. The outer mould line of the vehicle is a quiescent subsystem in and of itself"), and he moved from California to run Northrop's team at Whiteman in 2003. Last year, he earned the right to be called Spirit 445 - becoming the 445th person to fly in a B-2. 

AB: Are you able to discuss what you learnt after the accident at Guam

KG: We understand the phenomenon that took place. And we've put processes and procedures in place to ensure that that phenomenon never recurs.

AB: As a layman, I find myself asking, if you've got this sort of a system, where computers are essentially flying the aircraft, there's always going to be a problem if any bad data gets in. Is that something that's now been completely cured?

KG: In my estimation it is. Let me put it this way: my flight in a B-2 was post-127's accident, and I had absolutely no qualms about strapping into the mission commander's seat and going down the runway.

AB: That must've been a pretty amazing experience.

KG: It was. Spend 26 years working on an airplane, designing the aircraft, knowing it from the blueprints, knowing it from the electrical diagrams, knowing it from, if you will, the 1s and 0s that operate behind the scenes - but then to see it all integrated and operating... it was mind-boggling.

AB: Did you shed a tear?

KG: I didn't shed a tear - I was too excited.

AB: How did that come about?

KG: You'd have to go back and ask [former Wing Commander] General Harencak. Quite honestly, I was dumbfounded when I was told. Colonel Bussiere, who was the Operational Group Commander, is a very interesting individual. I have the greatest respect for the man. We were at an awards dinner, in February of [2009]. I had just returned to the table, and the salads had been served, and I asked the Colonel if he would pass the salad dressing. And he said, 'Oh no: let me serve you.' This is just Colonel Bussiere being Colonel Bussiere. He gets up and comes round the table, he is ladling salad dressing on my salad, and he bends down and he says, 'Your flight in a B-2 has been approved.' And my jaw hit the table. I didn't say a word to him - he'd walked back around and sat down. My wife, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and said, 'What did he say?' And I said, 'I think you heard what I heard!' So, the next day - he still didn't say anything; it was a Saturday - I emailed him. I said, 'Sir, were you kidding?' And he fired right back, and he said, 'No.' We subsequently scheduled it. To show you how really brave I was, it was scheduled for March 13th, which was a Friday. So, on Friday the 13th, after a week of essentially getting ready - sim time: lots o' sim time; flight physical; hanging harness; emergency egress; all those things I hadn't done in 20-plus years - I was strapped in, I was in the mission commander's seat, and we flew a two-plus, a bombing mission, across the state of Missouri. We took out targets... the first target set was a bridge over Lake of the Ozarks, second target set was some silos outside of Columbia, then we shot across by Illinois, swung back in to the bridge right there by the arches in St Louis, and put 69 weapons on that bridge.

AB: Electronically, of course!

KG: Of course. And the joy was, I got to run the bombing systems of the aircraft. The aircraft flew code one all three flights that day. I'm probably the only living, breathing human being that went from a B-47 Statofortress to a B-2 Stealth Bomber - when I was 18 years old that's what I started out in. 


Maintainers' decorated chock in front of Spirit of Mississippi's wheels; October 31, 2009

I got a guided tour of Spirit of Mississippi from maintenance crew chief Senior Master Sergeant Craig Barylski, who's worked on B-2s since the early 1990s and, like all the people I met at Whiteman, feels a deep attachment to, and pride in, the aircraft. Unfortunately there aren't any photos of him; and I didn't get an interview on tape, because you're not allowed to take any electronic items with you into the B-2 dock. Nevertheless, SMSgt Barylski gave me a ton of information, and was the soul of politeness on those occasions when I asked questions he wasn't allowed to answer. One day someone's going to write the definitive history of this aircraft, and I hope they talk to people like Ken Gallagher and SMSgt Barylski before they do: what they don't know about the B-2 really isn't worth knowing. 

SMSgt Barylski: The difference between working on a B-52 and a B-2 is like the difference between working on an old car and a modern car. And, just as most people take pride in their car, and treat it with care and attention, so we take pride in the airplane. It's our airplane - we just let the air crews borrow it. Watching a launch is the best part of the job: you put in all the hard work and at that moment you get to see the difference you made.

Lt Col Jay Delancy silhouetted in the doorway of a dock while a B-2 taxis past; October 31, 2009.

While this photo was being taken, I was talking to SMSgt Barylski. Watching the B-2 on the taxi way, he said: "The day my heart stops beating faster when I see that, I'll know it's time to move on to my next life."

I can't end without making public my thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Jay Delancy and his team (among whom I am particularly indebted to Sergeant Teel, who got me onto the grass apron alongside the runway and to within about 60 feet of a B-2 as it took off, and Sergeant Barebo, who helped throughout my visit) at Whiteman's Public Affairs office. I spent months working to get access to the base, but it was when Lt Col Delancy took over the department that things started to move forward. I'm sure that, without his tireless work on my behalf, I'd never have had the opportunity to learn about the aircraft and the remarkable people who work on it. I hope they all feel that it was worthwhile!

The author under the Spirit of Mississippi's wing; October 31, 2009; and... the driving seat. You'll be relieved to learn it was switched off at the time.


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