WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. — Working the B-2 comes with specific challenges. Technically, it’s a challenging airplane, where careful, minute repair work is needed to maintain the low-observable coating that, as much as its unique shape, defines the B-2.
And logistically speaking, there’s no room for error, given the limited number of bombers available at any one time. That means teams need to work quickly without a mistake on a national asset that at a moment could be called upon for America’s highest-level missions.
Maintainer teams that work on the bomber are aware of that, which makes them doubly dedicated to their work, even when the realities of being on Whiteman Air Force Base in the middle of Missouri can sometimes make it more difficult, said Col. Seth Graham, vice commander of the 509th Bomb Wing.
“There’s times when in the middle of the summer where the airplane’s so hot you can’t touch it without having gloves on, or in the wintertime, when it’s so cold out there that you’ve got so many layers of clothes on that you have no dexterity in your fingers, and you’re doing things that require really intricate dexterity,” Graham said in an interview with journalist and Defense News contributor Jeff Bolton during a visit to Whiteman AFB.
“So, for when an airplane goes and drops all those weapons and does the mission, they take immense pride in that, and when we can have that team be that cohesive, that's when we are operating at our best.”
Master Sgt. Chris Callow, who runs one of the two teams in charge of maintaining the stealth coating, said the learning curve on the B-2 is as steep as any aircraft in the U.S. Air Force’s inventory.
“Literally, it takes about two years before they [team members] get just competent enough that I can send them out to the jet and really kind of leave them on their own to fix anything I need fixed,” Callow said. “Not everybody can do it. It’s an art form, it’s a skill. It’s something that you really get a sense of pride out of doing every day.”
Tolerances need to be within a thousandth of an inch in places, Callow noted, with 225 different types of materials making up the stealth coating.
“It’s a lot just to wrap your head around as far as what goes where,” he said. “So we’ll do paint, we’ll do different types of tape, we’ll do different types of radar-absorbing material in key locations of the aircraft [because] the whole purpose of this aircraft, the main purpose, is shaping. We want to control where the radar goes, we want to make sure it goes here and not there.
“Primarily we do that through shaping, but it's also done with the materials that we use. We'll make sure that the paint's smooth, everything's conductive, there's a good plane for all the energy to flow where it needs to flow,” Callow added. “The material’s only as good as the maintainer putting it on. You can't just take paint and sling it in any old way.”
In the summer, Whiteman can get flooded with an abundance of bugs, but those annoyances aren’t an issue for the coating, said Staff Sgt. Josh Batschke. But birds? Hit a bird, and a whole team has to come out to “see what our repair parameters are — whether or not we can repair it and make it right again.”
The training isn’t just long for those dealing with the coating. Electrical maintainers can expect at least a year of training before performing basic tasks around the jet, said Tech. Sgt. James Torrance. He emphasized the need to keep the plane running cool.
“Everything electrical generates some portion of heat, and this jet has two different forms of cooling,” Torrance said. “Both air cooling and liquid cooling, depending on the components and where they’re located on the jet.”
That power-cooling balancing act is particularly important for the future of the B-2 as upgrades on the bomber continue, primarily for software and sensors. Keeping those upgrades going without causing extra downtime for the already limited fleet is a “zero-sum game,” said Brig. Gen. John Nichols, the wing commander of the 509th.
“It’s a balancing act moving forth. How do we take near-term readiness, address the readiness challenges, and make sure that the weapons’ system is mature and modernized, so that when asked to, in the outyears, we are capable of doing all the missions that the nation needs us to do?”
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.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.