Something I love about the air traffic controllers in the United States — they are great Americans. This trait, however, does not always work in our favor in the stealth bomber.
On a typical training sortie, we'll hear the controllers talking to other airplanes.
It's common to hear a conversation such as: "United Flight 313, if you look out your left window, you should be able to see a pair of B-2 stealth bombers."
Often, we'll hear the airline pilots responding, "Cool! Hey, thanks, Center! Tell those guys hello!" But in time of war, however, our name, "stealth bomber," is exactly what we are looking for — stealthiness. We have no defensive weapons and no fighters escorting us. We have our aircraft, and we have the element of surprise.
You can imagine our consternation, then, when the control center came across the radio about two hours into our flight that night. "United 754, this is Chicago Center. If you look out your left window, there is a beautiful sight. It's four B-2 stealth bombers . . . and I think they're going to Iraq."
All of us cringed slightly at this controller — a great patriot, proud of the military — but anybody listening to the radio could now figure out who we are, where we're going and approximately what time we'll get there. About 3 1/2 hours into the flight, we reached the northeastern tip of the United States, just off the coast of Maine. The flight so far had been flawless — nice weather, perfect airplanes. We all felt pretty good.
The flight was planned to have five air refuelings, with the first one just off the coast of Maine/Newfoundland. The rendezvous with the tanker (the refueling plane, a KC-135) went fine — that is, until we actually got within about two miles of the plane. Our formation went into some pretty thick clouds. Since we were going east, the sun was just starting to come up on the far East Coast of the United States.
The clouds, however, were so thick that our visibility went from unlimited to less than an eighth of a mile in seconds. We lost sight of the other B-2 that was with us. Fortunately, there were two refuelers, so each of us was partnered up with a tanker before the weather hit. Normally, in our day-to-day training, you will not refuel if you cannot maintain visibility of half a mile or greater. And you cannot do formation refueling if visibility is less than two miles.
This was a little different — you realize that if you don't get your fuel, a situation that would force us to either go home or divert to some other airfield, people on the ground may die. There are people counting on you to do your mission, so they can do theirs. We had to get the fuel.
Not only was the visibility bad, but the turbulence was moderate to severe. At one point, while connected to the tanker, his left wing was dipped about a third of the way down, while our right wing was about the same — not a comfortable feeling, especially when you are within about 10 feet of an airplane carrying more than 100,000 pounds of fuel, and you're carrying fuel plus more than 32,000 pounds of munitions.
After that refueling, we had about six hours of "drone time." This time, for the most part, was spent looking at the combat search-and-rescue procedures. My co-pilot and I each took about 45 minutes to "stretch out" behind the ejection seats.
Stretching out in the B-2 isn't all that relaxing. Behind the ACES-II ejection seats is an area about 5 feet 8 inches high, about 5 feet 8 inches long, and about 3 feet wide. This is what we call the "master bedroom." Taking any sort of catnap in the B-2 is an interesting proposition.
The smart guys in life support have figured out a way to shorten a regular Army cot so that it fits perfectly between the wall of the airplane and the chemical toilet, which is behind the right seat. Setting up the cot, when you have several bags, coolers, jugs, computers and books, isn’t easy. I spent 35 minutes trying to get that cot set up. Once it is set up, if you want to go to sleep, you have two options. You can either lie with your head right next to the chemical toilet, or you can have your head right next to a hot air exhaust.
Sleep did not come easily for either of us this day. Nerves, adrenaline and fear of the unknown all contributed to our restlessness.
During the next few hours of "crossing the pond," our biggest challenge besides getting rest was talking to the foreign controllers. When you are over the Atlantic Ocean, you are talking on a high-frequency radio — basically, your radio transmissions bounce off the atmosphere to the land-based stations with whom you are talking. The resulting conversations sound like something out of science fiction.
Our next event was to be a refueling somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea. Our tankers were scheduled to take off from Moron Air Base in Sevilla, Spain, and then proceed to meet us along our route of flight. The join-up on the tankers was nice — three KC-135s rolled out about two miles in front of our nose. After hookup, it was sure nice and encouraging to hear a fellow airman from the United States on the radio. "Stealth 31, this is Gasser 16. Looks like your compadres did some good work and are on the way home. Good luck to you tonight."
He meant that the B-2s that had taken off 24 hours before our flight had done some good work (he probably saw it on CNN like we did), and he had had radio contact with them. We crossed paths with the B-2s from the first night right there at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. Amazingly enough, at that moment, 10 B-2s were airborne at once. Six jets from Night One (three launched out of Whiteman and three from our forward operating location) and our four aircraft from Night Two's launch were all in the air at once. Pretty amazing to think that almost half of the world's 21 B-2 fleet was airborne at the same time.
Shortly after our hookup with the tanker, the "boom" operator, the person who controls the refueling probe, said that we had some pretty bad fuel spray coming from the top of our jet. That's never a comforting thing to hear. My co-pilot and I immediately started doing the fuel calculations. If we could not take fuel here, we might be able to still strike our targets, then go to a divert base. Certainly we hadn't come this far only to turn around and go home.
Fortunately, the other tankers did not give us fuel spray. The tanker we were on, we later found out, was sending the fuel out to our jet at too high a rate, so it was just spilling overboard. We ended up taking nearly 100,000 pounds of fuel from this set of tankers, all the way up to our maximum gross weight (more than 300,000 pounds).
As we continued over the Mediterranean, sunset came quickly. We were running away from the sun, and it was running away from us. For me, the night seemed to get darker and darker as we approached Iraqi airspace, which was still a few hours away. The darkness seemed to match the tone in our jet, increasingly quiet. We were both becoming acutely aware that the moment of truth was near.