As the nation's patchwork green heartland slips away beneath its signature bat-shaped body, the B-2 bomber slices through roiling winds to an altitude of 26,000 feet with the grace of a hawk riding a summer thermal.
Sunlight glints off its slate gray skin as the radar-eluding aircraft edges up toward the tail of a KC-10 fuel tanker. The B-2's massive172-foot wingspan pushes before it a huge "bow wave" of air that buffets the larger jet.
Latching onto the KC-10's refueling boom, the supersecret bomber quickly gulps hundreds of gallons of high-octane kerosene. Satiated in minutes, it unhooks, drops away, and banks out of sight at 460 miles per hour.
"Aerial refueling is probably the hardest part of flying the aircraft," says Capt. Eric Sanger, a B-2 pilot instructor. "But it's so aerodynamic, it's an easy aircraft to fly."
Back on Earth, the most expensive plane in history is having anything but a smooth ride.
Congress and the Clinton administration are locked in a fierce battle over whether to spend billions of dollars to add nine more B-2s to the current fleet of 21. Aside from a tight defense budget also at issue are hundreds of aerospace jobs and the strategic value of a cold-war-era weapon at a time when no nation is expected to present a serious threat to the United States military might for years to come.
The fight intensified last month after a government watchdog agency issued a report questioning whether the B-2 can retain its much-vaunted radar-eluding ability when operating in "extreme climates." The Government Accounting Office (GAO) study found that the bomber's rubber-like skin can be damaged by humidity or rain, degrading its stealthiness, and requires 124 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time.
The study also says some repairs cannot be made outside a climate-controlled shelter, denying the US for now the flexibility of basing the B-2 abroad. Furthermore, it raises the possibility that the price of the current 21 B-2s could exceed the $44.7 billion already spent.
"The B-2 is an A-1 flop," charges Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey.
While it backs on fiscal grounds the Clinton administration's opposition to building more B-2s, the Air Force insists that its bomber can operate in any kind of weather. Still, it has clearly been rattled by ridicule sparked by the GAO report, such as opponents holding "stealth" umbrellas over a mock-up of the aircraft on the steps of the Capitol.
"The aircraft is combat-ready," asserts Brig. Gen. Bruce Carlson, the Air Force's director of Global Power Programs. "We are meeting all the goals that we set."
Top-secret garbage collectors
With the B-2's credibility at stake, the Air Force has launched an all-out defense of the bomber. Last Friday, it gave reporters unprecedented access to a program that was once so closely guarded that even workers who collect refuse from the hangars at Whiteman Air Force Base required top-secret clearance.
This week, the Air Force was back on the defensive again in the wake of an F-117A fighter jet crash at an airshow near Baltimore. Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia wants Congress to pass legislation prohibiting the use of F-117A stealth fighters and B-2 stealth bombers at air shows. He says that stealth planes are too expensive to put at risk for such purposes. Air Force officials say the air shows are valuable for allowing Americans to see what they are paying for.
In its B-2 outreach effort, the Air Force took the extraordinary step of flying dozens of journalists from Washington to Whiteman on a KC-10 tanker plane. During the flight, they watched through the boom operator's window as a B-2 executed the risky midair refueling procedure.
On the ground at the high-security air base, weapons handlers demonstrated how rackloads of nuclear bombs are hefted into the bomber, and, pilots showed off the cockpit of the Spirit of Pennsylvania, the newest and most advanced B-2 in the fleet. The only questions politely declined dealt with the plane's most sensitive systems.
Standing below the cockpit hatch, Capt. Jeff Long says his longest flight lasted 29.9 hours. Periodically, he says, he and his co-pilot took turns napping on a rubber mattress laid on the floor in a narrow space behind their seats. Along with their military rations, Captain Long admits that he munched on "stuff my kids gave me. My son gave me Starbursts and my daughter gave me licorice."
For all of its state-of-the art systems some pilots complain that the B-2's toilet capacity is insufficient for such long flights, forcing them to rely on "piddle packs" in their flight suits.
As part of the tour, a brush-wielding cleaning crew also hosed down a B-2 to refute the suggestions that its skin of radar-absorbing materials cannot withstand water. "The Air Force ... wanted the American public to know that a lot of the information that has been in the media in the past few weeks was inaccurate," says Brig. Gen. Thomas Goslin Jr., commander of the 509th Bomb Wing.
The bomber was designed during the cold war to deliver nuclear bombs deep inside the Soviet Union. Originally, Northrop Grumman Corp. said it could deliver 132 B-2s for $22 billion; that turned out to be the price of building just the first aircraft. The costs and technical problems led to a decision to cut production to 21. They were reconfigured with the end of the cold war to also carry a new generation of precision-guided conventional weapons.
Despite the aircraft's troubled history and its lack of combat-testing, the Air Force and its maker, Northrop, insist it is unrivaled in sophistication, lethality, and cost-efficiency.
With midair refueling, it is the only plane that can take off from the US mainland, stage a pinpoint raid without detection anywhere in the world - day or night, in any weather - and return home, they say. Furthermore, they say, one B-2 carrying 16 2,000-pound "smart" bombs can hit the same targets as two to four B-52s, the mainstay of the US bomber fleet, loaded with 32 cruise missiles, for a savings of $31 million.
Nor does the B-2 require expensive overseas basing or a protective screen of jetfighters, they say. "If they tell me they need me on the other side of the world tomorrow, I know I will be there," asserts Long.
But opponents denounce the B-2 as a lemon. Bolstered by the GAO study, they say it is a cold-war relic that cost three times its weight in gold but has no place in future conflicts or the shrinking federal budget. When he was a senator, Defense Secretary William Cohen said sending the B-2 to war would be like dispatching "a Rolls Royce to pick up groceries in a combat zone."
Critics all wet?
Air Force officials generally agree with the GAO report, but contend that it was misinterpreted by the media.
They say that rainstorms can damage the B-2's skin, but don't affect its stealthiness, which mainly depends on its shape and internal structures. They also insist that evolving maintenance techniques will eventually slash repair times significantly.
The House believes what it hears. It has added $27 billion to its version of the fiscal 1998 defense budget for nine more B-2s. Members say the bomber is vital to US security; those with aerospace workers in their districts don't want to kill the program a year before facing re-election.
The Clinton administration and the Pentagon do not want any more B-2s, preferring to devote tight defense dollars to developing three different advanced jetfighters. The Senate has reluctantly agreed to cancel funds for new B-2s, setting the stage for a GOP leadership feud.