B-2 Spirit "Stealth Bomber"

See much better quality photos of the the B-2 Spirit at the 2005 Edwards AFB Airshow.

If you think the shape of the B-2 is very futuristic, you're mistaken.    The manufacturer, Northrop, had been experimenting with so-called "flying wing" designs since the 1930s, mostly because the owner of the company, the legendary John Northrop, was fascinated by them.

B2 approaching in a tight bank
B35, propeller-driven precusor of the B2

In fact Northrop had already produced two flying wing bombers long before the B-2.   The B-35, pictured above, was a propeller driven flying wing with a range of 7500 miles - even greater than the B-2!   It first flew in June of 1946, less than a year after the end of World War Two.   A later jet propelled variant, the B-49, overcame some of the difficulties associated with the B-35's eight contra-rotating propellers, but had less range.

Unfortunately, the B-35 and B-49 both lacked the B-2's sophisticated onboard stabilization system made possible by digital computers, making it difficult to set up a straight and level bombing run.   In addition, it was almost impossible to fit the early bulky atomic bombs into the aircraft's bomb bays.

B2 approaching with blue sky behind

However the final straw was some extraordinary maneuvouring hatched by a high-ranking Air Force officer, who wanted Northrop to merge his company with Convair.   Northrop refused, and the Air Force ordered that the dozen of so B-49s which had been delivered be summarily and unceremoniously destroyed, ending Northrop's dreams of a flying wing bomber.   However, one remnant of his early work remains - the one third scale N9M flying wing which was first flown near the end of world war two, and has since been restored and put back in the air during the annual Chino airshow in California.

B2 levelling out with clouds and blue sky behind

Devastated and fearful of a continuing vendetta against the company he'd founded, he departed and divested himself of all his ownership interests in it.

B2 banking sharply from directly in front

So it's absolutely no accident that the B-2 shares the B-35's wingspan of exactly 172 feet!   The Northrop engineers wanted to pay homage to the man who had first shown the practicality of the design.

Shortly before the B-2 made its debut in 1988, Jack Northrop was given a private viewing of the new aircraft, which was the fulfilment of his ideas.

rear view of the B2 in nearly level flight

Surprisingly, for such a technologically sophisticated aircraft, the B-2 was made public seven or eight months before its first flight in July of 1989.   This is in contrast to the F-117 "stealth fighter" which was delivered in 1982 but wasn't displayed publicly until April 1990 (the F-117 had been officially announced in November of 1988, the same month that the far more sophisticated B-2 was displayed).

B2 banking around for a second flypast with a background of fluffy cumulus clouds
See much better quality photos of the the B-2 Spirit, F-117 Stealth Fighter and the F-22 Raptor.