First Flight Creating ‘as Much Hype as Batman Movie’ : B-2: Some View It as the ‘PR Bomber’

Times Staff Writer

The B-2 stealth bomber may some day carry 25 tons of nuclear warheads but when the aircraft makes its maiden flight, it will carry a considerably less-lethal payload: thousands of commemorative lapel pins to be distributed to Northrop employees.

Northrop, the prime contractor on the B-2 project, and its partners at the Air Force who are paying $70 billion for the bomber program, are rallying to promote the first flight of the aircraft for maximum political benefit amid a mounting controversy in Washington over its cost and need. It is making for a somewhat bizarre mix of high-technology aerospace and old-fashioned hype.

‘It Ought to Fly’

“This has generated as much hype as the Batman movie,” said Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), who has fought to cancel the program. “Everybody wants to see if it will fly. Well, for the $23 billion we have already spent, it ought to fly.”


The bomber, a surreal looking craft designed to elude enemy radar with exotic materials and gently contoured surfaces, has undertaken two series of taxi tests this week at Northrop’s plant in Palmdale and may attempt its first flight as early as today. The aircraft is expected to make a two-hour flight across the Southern California desert, reportedly accompanied by two F-16 jet fighters.

Although critics are already discounting the importance of the first test flight, the event is generating considerable attention. Aviation enthusiasts have begun gathering in the baking Mojave Desert sun outside the gates of the Palmdale site, hoping to catch a glimpse of the distant bomber on the runway. Three Air Force generals will be on hand for the flight, as well.

AF Hawking T-Shirts

And more than 100 news media representatives from around the world have staked out a prime viewing site adjacent to the taxi tests, watching the dark gray aircraft roar up and down the runway. Air Force officers have been hawking T-shirts with the B-2 emblazoned on the front to sometimes bored news reporters and photographers at the runway. One newswoman from the local Antelope Valley News used the long delays for the taxi tests Thursday as an opportunity to lie in a lawn chair and work on her tan.


“The B-2 has gone from being the stealth bomber to being the public relations bomber,” said Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project, a watchdog group. “What is striking to me is that the Air Force has been more forthcoming on details of this aircraft in the last three months than it has been in the last six years.”

The current Pentagon funding crisis has pushed the art of public relations in the defense industry to new frontiers. When the Pentagon proposed canceling the Grumman F-14 jet fighter program, the company distributed to members of Congress “Top Gun,” a hit movie that glorified the F-14.

Since then, proposed funding has been restored for the F-14, in part, by diverting B-2 funds. One Capitol Hill staff member observed that the Northrop bomber has become a virtual funding reservoir for other programs.

Clings to Its Mystique


Northrop does not have any B-2 movies to counter its critics but it has the mystique of the stealth technology. And it is stepping up efforts to discuss the aircraft’s capabilities and the manufacturing technology. The company even made B-2 executives available for interviews for the first time this week.

In one of those interviews, Northrop deputy program manager David Van Buren earlier this week said that the B-2 had achieved a whole series of technological breakthroughs, including a sixfold reduction in errors in getting aircraft parts to fit together and a 62-fold reduction in setting up fabric laminations for plastic parts.

The same message has been carried to Congress by Northrop lobbyists in numerous visits in an effort to save the program from potentially disastrous budget cuts. In a recent interview, Northrop Chairman Thomas V. Jones said the program could be crippled if it falls below the so-called minimum sustainable rate, in which the company would be unable to retain enough skilled employees. “It is down at that point where you could call it in a holding pattern,” he said.

Costs Could Soar


The aircraft will cost an average of $530 million each, but under one scenario presented to Congress, annual funding cutbacks and a production slowdown would boost that cost to $1.4 billion. A powerful House staff member notes that under current Air Force plans, about $48.7 billion will be spent on the bomber and 47 aircraft built before testing is completed.

But Van Buren insists that the B-2 has undergone extensive testing on the ground to reduce any potential risks and that the B-2 price is only $274 million (excluding future inflation and development costs), which has changed little from estimates made a few years ago. He said that the B-2 takes fewer labor hours to manufacture on a “per pound” basis than the B-1 bomber or the Boeing 757 commercial jetliner.

The hours per pound are not what concerns the Congress, however. It is the current budget that calls for annual funding of up to $8 billion for the B-2, more than any weapon has received in one year in U.S. history.

The House Armed Services Committee has already cut $800 million from the B-2’s 1990 budget and committee staff say that much deeper cuts are likely once the funding legislation reaches the House floor. The program fared much better in the Senate, where so far it has been funded at the levels requested by the Pentagon.


Call It a ‘Validation’

A successful first test flight is bound to do little to help the B-2, although an unsuccessful test could be catastrophic. Northrop officials have gone to great lengths to discount any uncertainty about the B-2. They don’t even call it a test, instead referring to it as a “validation” of the previous ground testing that has occurred. Van Buren noted that the aircraft has gone through 122,000 hours of preflight qualification testing.

But first flights have been difficult in the past.

When the F-16 underwent its first taxi tests in 1974, it prematurely lifted off the runway and nearly crashed. Films of the flight show the aircraft wobbling in a near stall and only slowly recovering. When the Air Force C-5A cargo jet made its first flight in 1968, a wheel fell off at the end of the runway.


Kasich, the Ohio Republican who wants to cancel the B-2, said he has little doubt that the B-2 will fly successfully, “but that should not mean much in this debate. They are trying to make it mean a lot because the plane is in trouble.”