B-2 Spirits Return To The Sky After Six Month Grounding

The U.S. Air Force’s B-2 Spirit stealth bombers have finally taken to the skies again today. This comes roughly six months after the entire fleet was effectively grounded following an accident involving one of the aircraft in December 2022, details about which remain limited. Throughout the so-called safety pause, the service said that the bombers, a key component of America’s nuclear triad, could still be employed if absolutely necessary in response to a major crisis or contingency.

Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) confirmed the resumption of B-2 flying operations to The War Zone today. Air & Space Forces Magazine first reported on May 18 that the safety pause had ended and that the B-2s would be back in the air within days.

“General Thomas A. Bussiere, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command, rescinded the precautionary safety pause of the B-2 fleet on May 18. The fleet safety pause began on Dec. 10, 2022, and B-2A Spirit aircraft resumed flying operations today,” according to a statement from AFGSC. “Throughout the fleet safety pause, our ability to execute our mission was never at risk: the B-2 fleet could still fly missions on the orders of the President of the United States or in support of the National Command Authority.”

“Readiness for us is two-fold: the ability of the pilots to fly and execute the mission, and the ability of the maintainers to enable the mission by keeping the aircraft operational. During the safety pause, we erred on the side of prudence and caution to assess any possible safety of flight issues, deliberately and methodically, within the fleet,” the statement continued. “We successfully accomplished all necessary actions to safely return to full flight operations with the B-2 fleet. While the B-2 fleet safety pause is officially over, our ability to deliver nuclear deterrence and provide long-range strike was never in doubt.”

AFGSC did not provide additional details about the first B-2 sortie since the end of the safety pause. An official video seen earlier in this story indicates that the aircraft that was given this honor was serial number 88-0332, also known as the Spirit of Washington.

The War Zone understands that the bomber took off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri at around 8:30 A.M. local time. Whiteman is home to the bulk of the Air Force’s relatively small B-2 fleet, which consists of just 20 aircraft in total.

A publicly available recording of air traffic control communications with Kansas City Center also picked up a brief conversation with the crew of the B-2, which was using the callsign Spirit 01 at the time.

“I wish that the safety pause was not necessary,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Andrew Gebara, commander of the Eighth Air Force, which oversees all of the service’s bombers, had told Air & Space Forces Magazine last week. “But I think that it was really important that we find out what happened [to the aircraft involved in the accident] and make sure that was all mitigated before you start flying again, and that’s what we did.”

“I want them to come back in a disciplined, deliberate manner,” Gebara added in that interview. “But we will do full operational missions. So you’re not going to see one loop around and land kind of sorties. It’ll be a normal sortie. I actually am not concerned at all about the mission aspects of the force.”

During the safety pause, “B-2 pilots spent time during the safety pause in the advanced simulators at Whiteman and increased repetitions in T-38 trainers,” according to Air & Space Forces Magazine. Gebera said that routine maintenance continued on the B-2s during the safety pause, as well.

A B-2 bomber takes off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri in 2019. USAF

There continue to be few specific details available about the exact circumstances surrounding the accident on December 10.

“SIB [Safety Investigation Board] information is privileged, but there will be a publicly releasable AIB [Accident Investigation Board] report on the incident at some point in the future,” a spokesperson for AFGSC told The War Zone today when asked for more details.

What is known is that the B-2 involved in the mishap made an emergency landing at Whiteman and suffered a fire. A picture subsequently emerged that showed the bomber lying on its side. Another B-2 ended up in a similar position at Whiteman in 2021 after skidding off the runway. The cause of that incident was later traced to the failure of a pair of worn springs on the left main landing gear assembly. Whether or not there is any connection between that incident and the one last December is currently unknown.

The damaged B-2 involved in the December 2022 mishap remained on the base’s lone runway, preventing its use by any aircraft, for more than a week afterward.

In addition to the majority of the Air Force’s B-2 fleet, T-38 Talon jet trainers are also based at Whiteman, which the Spirit crews of those aircraft use for concurrency training. It also hosts squadrons flying A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft and MQ-9 Reaper drones.

The subsequent safety pause that went into effect after the accident last December had stranded one B-2 bomber at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, as The War Zone was first to report. Air & Space Forces Magazine reported last week that a B-2 test aircraft that normally operates from Edwards Air Force Base in California also found itself stuck at Whiteman. Both aircraft will likely now be heading to their respective homes in the near future.

Questions also remain about what will happen to the B-2 that was involved in last year’s mishap. Though the extent of the damage the aircraft sustained is unknown, the advanced and specialized nature of these bombers, right down to the very basics of their construction and radar-absorbent coatings, could make even relatively minor damage very expensive to repair.

The small fleet of B-2s, collectively, is a prime example of a low-density, high-value asset. The bombers have an unparalleled ability to penetrate dense enemy air defenses to carry out nuclear or conventional strikes over extremely long distances. Among its conventional strike roles, the Spirit is notably the only platform anywhere in the U.S. military currently authorized to employ the 30,000-pound-class GBU-57/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bunker buster operationally.

Depending on the severity of the damage, the Air Force could also choose not to repair the B-2 involved in the December 2022 mishap and use whatever is recoverable to help sustain the remaining bombers. The service did completely write off one Spirit after it suffered a devastating fire in the course of a major accident in 2008.

The Air Force has since repaired other B-2s after significant, but still less serious mishaps, at great cost. This includes the Spirit of Washington, which suffered a major fire at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam in 2010. It took around three years and approximately $105 million, which included the price of a scheduled overhaul that was conducted together with the repairs, to get that aircraft flying again.

The B-2 that skidded off the runway at Whiteman didn’t fly at all for another year and did so only to travel to Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, to be fully repaired. The Air Force has said it expects to spend at least $10.1 million fixing that bomber.

This all also comes now as the Air Force is looking to reach an initial operational capability with its new B-21 Raider stealth bombers in the latter half of the decade. B-21s are expected to eventually replace all of the service’s B-2 and B-1 bombers. The Raider’s first flight is currently scheduled to take place sometime later this year.

B-21 Raider
The first prototype B-21 Raider stealth bomber. USAF U.S. Air Force

The unclassified version of the accident report, which should provide at least basic details about the entire mishap and the Air Force’s next course or courses of action, will hopefully be released soon. Whatever the case may be, the service’s remaining 19 B-2 bombers can now go back to business as usual.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.