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Spirit B-2: the $2 billion stealth bomber

The aircraft designed during the Cold War is the most expensive in history and completed the longest combat flight to date.

Foto del bombardero B-2 en pleno vuelo.

(U.S. Air Force)

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When aircraft designer John Northrop came up with the flying wing in the 1940s, the Air Force rejected all of his prototypes. They lacked, it argued, stability.

The entire weight of the aircraft, including crew, fuel and equipment, was concentrated on one large wing, with the tail and fuselage separated. Although Northrop left Northrop Corporation in 1952, the company continued to refine its design.

"Now I know why God has kept me alive for 25 years," the designer reportedly wrote when he was allowed to see models of the B-2 in 1980. Seriously ill by then, he did not get to see the bomber's public unveiling eight years later in an Air Force hangar in California.

A B-2 Spirit lands at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in 2006.

The B-2 Spirit was designed during the Cold War. Its objective: to pass enemy radars undetected and bomb them with conventional or nuclear material.

Although the original original plan was to build 132 B-2s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the purchase was reduced to 21. Today, 20 remain active, following an accident in 2008 that disabled the Spirit of Kansas.


The aircraft's v-shape, its carbon fiber surface and the position of its engines are all part of the equation that allows it to be "stealth" or undetectable to radars. This technology was first dreamed up by the Germans during World War I. This is explained by Real Engineering, which explains why radars mistake the nuclear-capable bomber for a “large bird.”

Not only its flight is undetectable, so is its armament. Northrop Grumman, its manufacturer, announced last year that a B-2 had successfully launched a JASSM-ER (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile), a long-range missile that evades radar detection.


The B-2 can fly 6,000 nautical miles (6,500 miles) without refueling, and 10,000 nautical miles (11,500 miles) with just one full load of fuel, according to its manufacturer.

This means that, via the Atlantic and in a direct flight, it can reach Moscow or Beijing with only one fuel load. Additionally, there is no need to land, as the B-2 can refuel in mid-flight.

B-2 mid-air refueling over Missouri by KC-135 Stratotanker in 2023

In service

"What jet do we have anyway?" asked pilot Mel Deaile. He had just taken off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers.

His destination: Afghanistan. His ship: Spirit of America, as co-pilot Brian "Jethro" Neal informed him, was the last B-2 built by the United States. Their mission: to cross the Pacific Ocean to reach Afghan territory, taking turns sleeping and refueling in mid-air at least five times, to rain ammunition on targets marked by the command. Neal and Deaile completed, 44 hours later, the longest combat mission in aviation history.

The aircraft also participated in the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, called Operation Allied Force, flying non-stop from Whiteman to Kosovo. Four years later, it fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom, where it unloaded more than 1.5 million pounds of ammunition.

B2 dropping bombs in a training exercise over the Pacific Ocean near California in 1994.

The most expensive plane crash in history

Each B-2 cost $2 billion. This value, which includes the price of the entire aircraft research and development program, is found in a report to Congress from the Government Accountability Office in 1997. According to the same institution, the bomber's flight hour costs $150,741.

"The B-2 is the most expensive aircraft in the world." This is how the Encyclopedia Britannica defines it, and it is confirmed by several rankings. These include Air Force Technology, which compares military aircraft:

  1. Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit - $2 billion.
  2. Air Force One - $660 million.
  3. F-22 Raptor - $350 million.
  4. C-17 Globemaster III - $328 million.
  5. P-8A Poseidon - $290 million.
  6. VH-71 Kestrel - $241 million.
  7. Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye - $232 million.
  8. F-35 Lightning II - $115.5 million.
  9. Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey - $118 million.
  10. Chengdu J-20 Black Eagle - $110 million.

With the same criteria, the B-2 also played a key role in the worst aircraft accident of all time, not in terms of human lives (the pilots ejected in time) nor in ground infrastructure, but in cost. on Dec. 10, 2008 the Spirit of Arizona caught fire after being forced to make an emergency landing at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The billion-dollar accident left the ship disabled.

Remains of El B-2 Arizona after crashing in Guam in 2008

In cinema

In the iconic film “Independence Day,” the Spirit was put at the service of Hollywood to defend the planet from aliens. In one sequence in the film, the bomber can be seen firing a nuclear missile at the order of President Thomas J. Whitmore, played by Bill Pullman.

The B-2 was also part of the cast of "Armageddon," "Iron Man 2," "Cloverfield: Monster" and, most recently, "Captain Marvel."

A bomber for the 21st century

Late last year, the Air Force unveiled the next addition to its bomber fleet: the B21 Raider.

With stealth technology and the ability to drop conventional and nuclear bombs, the brand new aircraft has many of the capabilities of the B-2 Spirit, so many that the old model will be forced to retire.

The "first new bomber of the 21st century," in the words of the Air Force, will enter service in 2027. If the original plan is fulfilled, at least one hundred aircraft will be produced.

The B-21 Raider after being unveiled to the public at a ceremony held on December 2, 2022 in Palmdale, California.