As someone who spent over three years working counterintelligence against the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, and then 10 years as an intelligence officer in the United States Navy, I am used to living in a world of secrets and spies.
What may surprise those less familiar with such work in highly classified intelligence operations, is just how pedestrian so much of it is. It is hard to strike a visceral emotion and convey the sense of danger and importance associated with meeting a Russian intelligence officer inside a café, where to an outside observer, the most dangerous thing is deciding whether to leave space for cream in your coffee as you nosh on a biscotti.
But even with my experience, I recently had a new kind of encounter as part of my Newsweek series “Unconventional” that left a deep impression on me. Amid the unassuming cornfields and cattle of the heartland of Missouri, I had the chance to see a B2 Spirit, the world’s only stealth bomber, that 30 years later, remains an ultra-secret jet. Later this month, I’ll actually fly in one.
The “Mystique of the Unknown” is how Colonel Keith Butler, commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, described the B2 stealth bomber to me. Seeing the jet up close for the first time, I immediately understood exactly what he meant – but that mystique does not just apply to the jet, it extends to everything around it.
For starters, each of the 20 B2s in service has an individual hangar, known as a nest. B2s do not sit on the ramp under the watchful eye of Chinese and Russian spy agencies. Instead, they are tucked away in these nests and only emerge to take to the runway and fly away. America’s adversaries do not know if the B2s are being fueled up, loaded with weapons, or if they are even in the hangars to begin with.
Owing to its rural setting, Whiteman Air Force Base blends into the fabric of the Midwest a world away from global events and turmoil. The base is dotted with non-descript Air Force-style drab brown buildings, and when I was there, remarkably devoid of people and traffic. On the face of it, you would never guess that the nation’s stealth bombers call this sleepy setting home. Upon approaching the airfield, however, roving security vehicles and a barbed wire topped fence dotted with armed guard towers begin to let on that something far more significant lies within.
Before getting a chance to board the mythical bomber itself, I first entered a B2 simulator to get a feel of what my forthcoming flight would be like. B2 pilots rely on both simulators and T38s, a small two-seat sleek training jet, to train for flying the stealth bomber. Today it was a virtual flight in the sim led by a young Air Force Captain with a call sign of Booster.
A student pilot in the final phase of the B2 curriculum, Booster had an easy-going temperament with an encyclopedic knowledge of the bomber, and just the right amount of jet pilot swagger. Watching her fly the simulator up to a virtual tanker was like watching a skilled surgeon and F1 driver rolled into one, slight and smooth flicks of her wrist as she aimed the bomber and worked the throttles, all while explaining what she was doing without missing a beat. After trying my hand at the helm, our time with Booster and the simulator came to an end, and I was off to see the real thing.
Airfields, by design, are large open areas littered with aircraft and people all moving in controlled chaos. Whiteman is the exact opposite. The large B2 hangars, painted an unremarkable tan and brown, flank both sides of the ramp. Whiteman may look like an airfield, but there was only one aircraft to be seen, sitting in its nest, the giant hangar doors pulled open.
Seeing a B2 in real life can only be described as surreal. Driving towards the bomber in a flat featureless airfield, its size is hard to determine. The closer we got to the jet, the larger it grew until it dominated our field of view. Besides how massive the jet was from wing tip to wing tip, I was struck by how high off the ground the flight deck is. You ascend to the flight deck by a long almost vertical white ladder which leads you to a narrow landing.
The cockpit is cramped with only two seats arranged side-by-side, like you would find on a commercial airliner. In fact, the B2s cockpit and flight controls look more like those of your common passenger plane than what may be expected of a strategic long-range stealth bomber, complete with several small screens that display flight data. Nothing about the cockpit interior hints at the role this aircraft plays in nuclear deterrence.
But that’s exactly what it does. And peering into its white hospital clean bomb bay built to drop both conventional and nuclear munitions, I couldn’t shake the impression that the whole jet was built around it.
Part of the appeal of working in intelligence is the fact that you are let into a world of secrets. The B2 inspires a similar fascination. To live in the B2 community is to be part of a small and elite club that operates this mysterious, yet formidable aircraft on a daily basis. Seeing the aircraft alone is something so few experience – even when it’s flying right under your radar.