PALMDALE, Calif. — The test pilots who will be the first to fly the B-21 Raider, the Air Force’s next stealth bomber, are now working with Air Force and Northrop Grumman officials to draw up a game plan for its first flights next year.
But one thing that’s not weighing on their minds, the pilots stressed to reporters before the bomber’s Dec. 2 rollout at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California: The shape of the B-21′s windows and the field of view they will allow pilots.
The Air Force in 2021 released an artist’s rendering of the B-21 that hinted at an unusual shape for its four windows, particularly those on the sides, which were depicted as slanting upward and narrower than those of its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit.
Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert and managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights, told Defense News the rendering raised eyebrows among military aircraft enthusiasts, and caused some to wonder if the new windows might be a step down in terms of visibility.
The B-21′s actual rollout confirmed that the cockpit windows are shaped differently — perhaps with a wider gap between the two main windows and slightly smaller on the sides — than those on the B-2.
But test pilot Lt. Col. Clifton Bell said that from what he’s seen, the B-21′s windshields aren’t effectively that much different from the B-2, and shouldn’t be a problem.
“Your body is very good at adjusting,” said Bell, who is in charge of the test organization at Edwards Air Force Base in California and previously flew the B-2 in his career. “When I first started flying the B-2, you noticed [its windows] the first flight, maybe the first hour, and then your mind is pretty good about separating what’s important, and what’s not important. I’ve yet to fly with windows that I have any concerns about.”
Harrison said the window design choices were likely made in part to maximize the B-21′s stealth capability. And as the B-21 was designed to be capable of being “optionally manned,” or flown remotely without a pilot, Harrison said there could be cameras or other sensors that could help broaden the pilots’ visibility, making wide windows less important.
Bell, as well as Northrop Grumman B-21 test pilot Chris Moss and Lt. Col. Joshua Schneider, the B-21′s deputy program manager, spoke with reporters at the Advancing Aeronautics Expo’s aircraft display before the ceremony began. The B-2 bomber dubbed the “Spirit of California” loomed behind them.
For the next few months following the first B-21′s public debut, its manufacturer Northrop Grumman will continue to conduct further ground tests on the bomber dubbed T-1, or 0001.
At some point in 2023, pending the results of those tests, this B-21 will carry out its first flight to Edwards. Once it is in Air Force hands, more formal flight tests can begin and the bomber will be put through its paces. Bell said a test flight program such as this is “a massive undertaking.”
Moss said the test pilots next year will be looking for “everything” when they take it up for a spin. That will include making sure the bomber flies the way it is expected to within the necessary air speeds and altitudes, as well as making sure all its systems work the way they should, and how the plane feels in-flight.
While in test flights, the Raider will be recording “all kinds of data” and transmitting it to a control room on the ground for analysis, Moss said.
And it’s not just the pilots’ job to help collect electronic data, Moss said. Their opinions and observations on how the plane feels, and whether it’s working as designed, and practiced in the simulators, and doing what was predicted will also be valuable data points for the program’s engineers.
Right now, Bell said, the team at Edwards is working together with Northrop to go over the Raider’s systems, and figure out which ones the team will need to test in-flight.
Bell said he’s been working on this program since 2016, working together with the manufacturer and Air Force Global Strike Command officials throughout the bomber’s development, and making adjustments when needed.
Bell said he hopes the B-21 flies similarly to the B-2.
But the B-21 will also include more than three decades of technological advances that have been made since the B-2′s 1988 introduction. And Bell is eager to see how those new capabilities will play out once pilots get into the cockpit.
“It used to be all about, ‘How well do I fly an airplane?’” Bell said. “Now it’s, ‘How do I operate a system?’ A lot of what it is, is learning how to operate a system to execute the mission.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.