B-1B Lancer Bombers at the 2001 Chicago Air Show

The airshow started on Saturday with a real show-stopper (sorry if that's a contradiction in terms!), a pair of B-1B Lancer bombers.

It's interesting enough to see one of these birds flying, but to have two at a time in close proximity is something special.

Two B1s flying past an apartment block

It's pretty lucky that I was ever able to see them fly, because the B-1 bomber program was cancelled under President Jimmy Carter and only reinstated by Ronald Reagan.   The same year I photographed them, they were on the chopping block again, with talk of the number of airbases where they are stationed being scaled way back.

Two B1s from head-on banking

The main reason for this is that despite their modern design and capabilities, they are really a dinosaur, intended to replace the B-52 Stratofortress in the role of intercontinental nuclear bomber.   With the cold war well and truly over, there isn't much mission left for them to perform.   Ironically, the B-52 is slated to be kept in service for at least another 30 years and has proved its continuing value in places like Iraq and Kosovo, while the B-1's higher speed and performance aren't really necessary, because America doesn't have many enemies with fighter aircraft of the same caliber as the former foe, the Soviet Union.  There are currently about 95 B-1s in the American fleet, only around 70 of which are actually flying at the current time.

Two B1s banking together

Nevertheless, this is still a remarkable aircraft, one of the few sharing a swing-wing design with aircraft like the F-111 Aardvark and the F-14 Tomcat.   When the wings are forward the B-1 can take off and land at lower than normal speeds for an aircraft of this size, carrying twice the bomb load of a B-52 (one and a half times the load of a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber).

B1 banking slightly with wings unswept

In this photo you can see the engines' afterburners in action, though the wings are still in their low-speed forward position.

B1 from the side with wings unswept

It's a sleek and beautifully curved bird, with a much lower radar cross-section than the B-52, but even with its wings swept and afterburners lit like you see here, it's only just capable of supersonic flight, with a rated maximum speed of Mach 1.2.

B1 making fast pass with wings swept

Instead of relying on pure speed, which was the intention of the Air Force's ill-fated Mach 3 Valkyrie bomber, the B-1 is equipped to fly at very low level to avoid radar, with terrain-following computers to allow it to thread in and out of hills and other obstacles on the way to its target.

B1 with wings swept back and afterburners lit
B1 making fast pass with wings swept and afterburner lit

The Lancer in fact has a reputation as a very maneuverable and responsible aircraft, making it fly almost like a fighter aircraft.

B1 bomber banking over Navy Pier
B1 climbing steeply

One famous painted poster of the B-1 shows it buzzing a mountain lake at such low altitude that it's making ripples on the water.   One American politican, who mistook the poster for a photograph, demanded the resignation of whoever the hot-shot pilot was responsible for such shenanigans with an expensive piece of taxpayer funded military equipment!