High Spirits: B-2 maintainers fuel global reach

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joshua Kleinholz
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Its 172-foot wingspan is interrupted only by the placement of four engines, each capable of providing 17,300 pounds of thrust to get a two man crew from point A to B. On a regular day, A is Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri; B could be on the other side of the globe.


It travels at high subsonic speeds often at elevations approaching 50,000 feet. Aided by a revolutionary blend of low-observable technologies, it can strike even the most heavily-protected enemy assets deep inside hostile territory with a devastating 40,000 pounds nuclear and conventional payload. Only 20 of them remain in the U.S. Air Force fleet, and back in the early 1990s when it first entered service, US taxpayers placed a massive bet on its potential at nearly $1.2 billion per unit. It is the B-2 Spirit multi-role stealth bomber, and by itself, it’s capable of nothing.


The dedicated men and women assigned to the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron call themselves the Keepers of the Spirit. They’re responsible for providing worldwide combat capability by planning and conducting all aspects of aircraft maintenance, launch and recovery of B-2 aircraft in support of Department of Defense nuclear and conventional taskings. Without them, the Air Force finds itself with a small collection of $20 billion paperweights gathering dust in central Missouri. Without them, the enemy is a little less afraid.


Fear can be effectively used as a deterrent; and for the better part of July, these maintenance professionals are here at Nellis AFB sweating it out beneath the punishing southern Nevada sun doing their part to keep potential adversaries on notice.


“Being a contributor to that kind of air superiority; being able to reach out and touch the enemy anytime, anywhere is an awesome feeling,” said Airman First Class Justin Manning, 509th AMS crew chief. “There are only 20 aircraft. We’re the only ones, and a lot of unit cohesion comes from that.”


The squadron is here to support their flying unit, the 393rd Bomb Squadron, as they play their unique role in Red Flag 17-3. Being a part of the Air Force’s premier multi-domain combat exercise requires service members to operate an accelerated pace designed to simulate wartime operations. Despite the 24-hour maintenance requirements, and temperatures exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the Keepers of the Spirit never flinch.


You’ll never see the B-2 breaking a sweat, but the effects of such high temperatures aren’t limited to just the boots on the ground. In addition to preparing aircraft for a full schedule of Red Flag sorties, these Airmen are also supporting sporadic cross-country flights back to Whiteman AFB where the B-2 can be stored properly. When exercise training scenarios dictate, the aircraft can then be moved back into the fight and prepped rapidly for whatever the mission requires.


“The jet reacts differently in different mission placements,” said Staff Sgt. Dez Starks, 509th AMS crew chief. “We have to constantly be aware of problems that may pop up here more often than we see back home.”


When the exercise that eventually became Red Flag was first devised in 1975, its primary objective was to increase the survivability of an aircrew’s first ten combat missions through intense simulations in a safe, controlled air space. Perhaps just as importantly though, the event provides joint U.S. and coalition Air Force maintenance professionals an invaluable opportunity to gain experience in deployed conditions.


“Out here with limited resources we’re forced to find work-arounds for any problems that we may have,” said Starks. “When something goes wrong here, it’s up to you and the small group of Airmen you came with. This allows for a certain amount of growth that you won’t always see at your home station.”


As Red Flag 17-3 nears its end July 28, B-2 crews will continue their efforts to streamline integration with the latest versions of fifth generation combat aircraft. During that time the Spirits will come and go, often under the cover of darkness.  But no matter where on earth they show up next, one thing is for sure; the maintainers have been there waiting for hours.