Ever wanted to fly the B-2 stealth bomber? Here's how to become one of the most elite pilots in the Air Force.

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. — Flying missions in the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber can be grueling. Most missions last well over a day, and some pilots regularly top 35, sometimes 40 hours cooped up in the cockpit as they fly around the world.

To get that done, B-2 wings require more than pilots. They need aviators who can operate at high skill levels, for long periods of time, with a lot of stick-and-rudder experience, according to Brig. Gen. John Nichols, commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.

And with the U.S. Air Force facing a pilot shortfall, the competition for skilled aviators is growing.

“The days of just being able to cherry-pick the best from every community to join … are becoming increasingly less common,” Nichols said in an interview with journalist and Defense News contributor Jeff Bolton during a visit to Whiteman AFB.

Click here for more from the special report on the U.S. nuclear enterprise.

Air Force Global Strike Command still finds new B-2 pilots by cross-training them from other communities, like Air Force Special Operations Command, Nichols said, but B-2 wings are increasingly bringing on pilots directly from Air Education and Training Command — and they have to keep training and developing their skills.

One of those aspiring B-2 pilots was 1st Lt. Brandon Cameron of the 13th Bomb Squadron. Cameron is a “direct hire” and is in his first assignment after finishing training to be a T-38 instructor pilot at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. Cameron said that almost a decade ago, they started bringing pilots straight out of undergraduate pilot training.

But he didn’t know that was possible at first and was surprised when he found out he could go straight to a B-2 squadron. He quickly learned it was “one of the best gigs in the Air Force.” He still gets hours flying the T-38, since instructor pilots are always needed. And the prospect of being a “protector,” flying the B-2, is exciting, he said.

B-2 training requires a lot of academic work and simulation hours before a pilot can even touch one of the bombers, said Capt. Chris “Thunder” Beck, one of the wing’s aspiring B-2 pilots. Beck was originally a B-52 pilot at the 20th Bomb Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. He finished initial qualification training for the B-2 in January and was preparing to move onto mission qualification training at the 393rd Bomb Squadron.

Cameron — an Air Force Academy graduate who grew up flying bush planes in Anchorage, Alaska — was still awaiting his initial qualification training to fly the stealth bomber. He doesn’t expect learning to fly B-2s will be as nerve-wracking as UPT, since those involved have experience flying. But, he acknowledged, some nervousness is unavoidable.

“There’s still some pucker factor there,” Cameron said.

Defense News partnered with independent journalist and long-time radio personality Jeff Bolton for a multimedia report that takes an up-close look at the U.S. nuclear enterprise by way of Bolton’s exclusive flights on military strike platforms and interviews with the leadership and military staff that support nuclear operations and missions.

Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.