The Air Force’s B-2 Spirit stealth bombers will resume flights starting Monday, May 22, after five months of safety inspections after one of them caught fire last December, the service confirmed on Friday.
General Thomas Bussiere, head of the Air Force Global Attack Command, approved on May 18 the return to normality of the nuclear-capable fleet, according to the command spokesman, Brus Vidal.
“We have successfully carried out all the necessary actions to return to full flight operations safely,” Vidal said. “Our long-range strike and nuclear deterrent capabilities were never in question.”
He did not answer whether the Air Force found problems with the fleet that would require repair before the planes could fly again or whether any of the bombers remained out of service.
What the Air Force was looking for when inspecting the Spirit fleet after its second mishap in two years is unclear.
On December 10, 2022, an undisclosed in-flight malfunction forced the crew of a B-2 to make an emergency landing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, where firefighters extinguished the flames at the scene. No one was injured, Whiteman’s 509th Bombardment Wing reported.
The US Air Force has not yet released a version of its investigation into that crash.
The incident came about a year after another Spirit bomber’s landing gear failed, causing it to skid off the Whiteman runway and land on the grass with one wing on the ground. The mishap cost the Air Force nearly $10 million.
The service has not said whether that B-2, or the one that went up in flames in December, has returned to the Global Strike stressed during the hiatus that B-2s could continue to be sent at the president’s order or in support of national security in emergency.
B-2 accidents are rare: prior to 2021, the most recent incident on record was in fiscal year 2015, according to the Air Force Safety Center. It was preceded by a fire that severely damaged one bomber in 2010. Another B-2 was destroyed in a takeoff accident off Guam in 2008.
The Air Force’s fleet of 19 B-2s operational in Whiteman has flown long-range surveillance and attack missions since the 1990s, from NATO’s Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia to campaigns against the Islamic State group in the Middle East and Africa.
These two-pilot aircraft can carry up to 40,000 pounds of nuclear and conventional munitions and have participated in rotating deployments worldwide to prevent Russian and Chinese aggression against the United States and its allies.
But the fleet is expensive to fly and has had trouble staying in top shape. B-2s posted a 52.8% mission capability rate in fiscal year 2022, meaning only half of the planes were capable of performing at least one key mission in flight, the Air Force said on 15 of May. This indicator has fallen almost 6 percentage points since the previous fiscal year.
The service plans to retire the fleet in the next 10 years to make way for the B-21 Raider, a more advanced stealth bomber that can carry conventional and nuclear weapons.
Rachel S Cohen