A new flight path for the 'invisible' bomber

How do you upgrade a $2 billion stealth bomber? Install e-mail.

Pilots flying the bat-winged B-2 bombers over Iraq received targets from mission planners on the ground via e-mail. It's not exactly America Online. Each encrypted message bounced off military satellites before popping up in their onboard laptops' Microsoft Outlook in-box.

The e-mails were vital, say pilots who have now returned from the Persian Gulf, as the fast pace of the campaign often made preassigned targets obsolete.

The pilots are now beginning to tell a side of the Iraq war that was important but unseen. There were no embedded media aboard these planes, or even at the bases they flew from. The Pentagon still won't confirm where they were based.

But stealth bombers - whose paper-thin profile and top-secret "skin"make them nearly invisible to radar - played a vital role in a campaign that involved unprecedented use of rapid ground-to-air communication. They delivered some of the air war's decisive blows from an altitude far removed from the dangers or ruin of battle.

Many of the B-2s flew from their home base in Knob Noster, Mo., where special climate-controlled hangars protect their sensitive outer skins. But four of the 21 stealth bombers operated from somewhere closer to the action for the first time, accounting for 40 percent of B-2 missions flown. That "forward location" is believed to be the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

Two B-2 pilots from the 509th Bomber Wing spoke to the Monitor about their five-week forward deployment and four combat missions on the condition they would not identify where they were based during the conflict.

The forward location cut the "commute" to Iraq in half - to a mere 18 hours round trip and reduced the number of aerial refuelings from five to two.

"It makes a big difference," says Lt. Col. Gavin Ketchen, who commanded the squadron from the forward location. For one thing, they didn't need any naps on the cot nestled behind their ejection seats: They could sleep on the ground while their Missouri-bound counterparts still had another sunrise and sunset to endure.

Part I: The First Night

On the afternoon of March 20, Col. Ketchen took off from his forward location as leader of a pack of three B-2s. Within minutes, he was joined in the air by a dozen B-52 bombers, as well as nearly every tanker aircraft at their base. Fighter escorts and electronic warfare planes joined this massive "package" of aircraft as it got closer to Iraq. So did three more B-2s flying from Missouri.

Their mission? Hit airfields around Baghdad where the Iraqis had dispersed aircraft capable of dropping chemical weapons. They also were assigned "high value" radio relay stations that helped Iraqi commanders communicate with units in the field and command and control bunkers where top generals hid. "We were trying to chop the head off the snake," Col. Ketchen says.

The targets weren't a surprise. For weeks, Ketchen's squadron had studied pre-selected targets and planned possible missions. However, they expected to lead off the war. Instead, the night before, F-117 stealth fighters and cruise missiles launched a last-minute strike against a Baghdad location where Iraqi leaders, including Saddam Hussein, were believed to be meeting.

Col. Ketchen is no stranger to combat over Iraq. A 19-year Air Force veteran who entered the Air Force after completing ROTC in college, he started his career as an engineer working on air-to-air missiles. He wound up fulfilling a childhood dream by applying to flight school. He'd regularly visited the flight museum at Wright Patterson air force base while growing up in Dayton, Ohio. He ended up a bomber pilot, flying an F-111 bomber out of Turkey on a combat mission over Iraq during Desert Storm. But this was his first combat mission at the controls of a B-2. After studying the Iraqi theater so carefully, Ketchen says he wasn't nervous at all as he flew towards Iraq sitting alongside his co-pilot. Unlike the B-52 - which has a crew of five - and the B-1 that requires four crew members, there are only two people aboard the B-2.

On the way, they refueled once - a task pilots find as physically taxing as combat. They must guide the bomber to within feet of the aerial fuel tanker's belly while flying 300 mph. In this high-speed aerial ballet, the pilot must align the plane's nozzle with the tanker's extended boom. Other than that midair dance, the flight to Iraq was rather uneventful, Ketchen says. Unlike the flight from the US, where pilots see the Statue of Liberty on the way over the Atlantic Ocean, Ketchen says they saw little outside the aircraft. (He declined to describe his actual route.) The only sight to see: a thicket of American fighter aircraft flying below at lower altitudes.

They sat at the controls in the eight-foot wide cockpit - about the size of a large desk. It houses two pilots' ejection seats and a cot for napping during long flights. The plane's itself is huge. The 172-foot wingspan stretches over half a football field, but the cockpit is small to keep a low radar profile . It's just high enough that Ketchen could stand up and stretch mid-flight. He munched on a series of snacks: celery, carrots, trail mix, and even fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs, and energy bars.

But neither pilot needed to take a nap on this short flight.

"It's almost like a normal work day," says Ketchen. The longer flight from Missouri complicates missions. Pilots must synchronize their schedules well before takeoff to ensure that one of them is always awake. Both are awake during the most sensitive parts of the mission: takeoff, landing, refueling, and weapons release.

It was night when they finally approached their target eight hours into the mission. Even at their high altitude, they could see the lights in Baghdad below. Anti-aircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles fired by Iraqis were visible in the distance, but were not aimed at Ketchen's aircraft.

His payload of satellite-guided JDAM "smart bombs" dropped automatically at four sets of targets. Pilots have the option of releasing them manually, but Ketchen and all other B-2 pilots during the war used a on-board computer that constantly re-calculated the correct launch time. Though the B-2 bomber weighs 360,000 pounds, it jerked slightly each time a 2,000-pound bomb was released. Bomb damage assessments later determined the B-2s hit all 48 targets.

Unlike ground attack pilots who fire right into enemy tanks from low altitude, Ketchen says B-2 pilots are detached from the impact of their bombs. "The sense of what you truly did does not hit you until a couple days later," he says.

Part II: Life on Diego Garcia

After completing their mission, Ketchen landed at the forward location he could not identify, but is widely known to be Diego Garcia, a British protectorate now occupied solely by military personnel and civilian contractors. Few outsiders ever visit the 6,270-acre lush corral reef off the coast of India, just seven degrees south of the equator.

That scenery is quite a shift from their usual base in Knob Noster - a single traffic light community where the surrounding farmland has long been dominated by the stealth bomber and nuclear missile silos, each one a half city-block wide square of cement.

Every lightpost on Knob Noster's block-long commercial strip has a sign that says "Home of the B-2." The local library's children bookshelf features a kids' book about the plane. Day or night, residents can glimpse one of the sharp-edged bombers fly over silos filled with grain (the ones housing missiles were deactivated a decade ago). "It's a big source of pride for everyone," says town librarian Julia Ward, who has lived in Knob Noster for 13 years.

With their stay on Diego Garcia precipitated by war, there wasn't much time to enjoy the island's lagoon, 40 miles of wave-swept beaches, 700 species of sea life including dolphins, and what a Navy website describes as "some of the world's finest fishing."

Each day, two or three stealth bombers would take off for Iraq from a runway adjoining the island's beaches. The pilots were lucky to sleep in buildings, in two sets of bunk beds. Other squadron personnel slept four or six to a tent, separated by plywood walls or, in some cases, a sheet. They could exercise in the fitness centers, visit an officers' club, or shop in a small convenience store.

Mostly though, the bomber pilots - including Capt. Jennifer Wilson, the first woman ever to fly a stealth bomber combat mission - passed what little free time they had conducting their own bomb damage assessment by watching tapes of CNN or Fox News. At their usual altitude and speed, the most B-2 pilots can see of their attack from overhead is a bomb flash reflected off clouds. But by watching the news while looking at a clock, they could determine which explosions were from bombs they dropped.

While pilots who flew back to Missouri saw their families that same night, Ketchen could only speak to his wife and three sons via webcam every three days or so. Often, he read his youngest son a book about tigers - the squadron's symbol.

Ketchen says both he and his family were better off apart.

"When you're [on a forward base], there's nothing to distract you from your primary job," Ketchen says. The separation allowed him to focus solely on work while his wife didn't have to worry knowing what nights he was away from home flying combat missions. Ketchen purposely didn't pass back information to spouses about when each pilot was flying.

Fortunately for pilots, says Ketchen, many of them had arrived only a week before the fighting started. Their colleagues flying the B-52s, the granddaddy of strategic bombers that have been in the air an average of 42 years, had to wait weeks for the war to start at Diego Garcia.

The B-2s were serviced in two specially built shelters where Air Force mechanics could work on their external skin free from the heat and humidity outside. At any given time, two of the four aircraft were in the shelters and two were on the tarmac. Ketchen says the aircraft performed "above and beyond" expectations. Few maintenance problems meant the number available for missions exceeded what Air Force planners anticipated.

Part III: A canceled mission, a long flight home

Growing up, Air Force Maj. Redman listened to his grandfather tell stories about the devastating effect of German strategic bombing on Bristol, England during the World War II blitz.

On the last night of the stealth bombers' war in Iraq, Redman led a massive flight of American bombers against targets near Baghdad. An Air Force academy graduate and 14-year veteran of the Air Force, he'd flown B-52s and B-1 bombers before graduating to the B-2. This was only Redman's second combat mission. The first came on the second night of the war.

As package commander, Redman also was responsible for B-52s, EA-6Bs and F-16 CJs. Redman could also communicate with AWACs, jumbo jets with huge radar domes on top that serve as traffic control planes in the sky, as well as Air Force controllers on the ground who directed bombers to their targets. He was responsible for making sure the bombers were synchronized, had adequate cover, and that no other planes were near the intended targets.

With ground forces quickly advancing toward Baghdad, he knew before takeoff that his targets would quickly become outdated. And he worried about hitting friendly forces or civilians.

The sky was completely free of Iraqi anti-aircraft fire as they approached Baghdad. By now, half the city was occupied by coalition forces. With only 30 to 45 minutes left before reaching their destination, the B-2s received a new set of instructions: prepare to strike an airfield near Baghdad. "That was awfully close for us," says Redman. They had no images of the new target. They had to trust the target selection process.

They flew within 40 miles - only four or five minutes flying time - when they received new orders yet again: stand down and head home to Missouri. American forces were moving too fast to safely drop the bombs. The B-2s' war was finished.

"It's a little bit of a letdown," says Redman. "Not because we didn't get to blow something up. But because so much effort goes into preparing for a mission."

The two B-2s made the trip together - flying a few miles apart, close enough that pilots could see each other out the cockpit window. Redman napped twice, the longer stretch lasting 90 minutes. He occupied the rest of the time filling out paperwork.

As they approached US airspace, FAA air traffic controllers welcomed them home. "Have a safe flight and get some sleep," Redman recalls one saying.

Part IV: Reuniting with families

Having chased the sunrise almost all the way home, they arrived at Whiteman on April 8 to an overcast, chilly sky. The reception on the ground was far warmer. Redman's wife and two children were waiting for him in the parking lot outside the squadron's brick building on base. His older son thought he'd just returned from Las Vegas. Redman told him he was in Nevada, where he goes once a year for training. His younger son was just happy to see him. His wife, though, took one look at his tan flight suit and knew he'd taken a detour over Iraq on the way home.

Ketchen returned a couple weeks later, flying a charted commercial airliner to Kansas City via Bahrain and London. His family was waiting for him at the Kansas City airport. The stewardesses and pilots were extra gracious.

Even so, Ketchen says he would have preferred returning in his own plane. "It's much better to fly your own airplane to your own airfield," he says.

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