The two pilots who flew Northrop's B-2 stealth bomber on its first test flight Monday have a new high-risk mission: They have been dispatched to Washington to help sell the politically troubled aircraft in Congress.
In what appears to be a major counteroffensive against B-2 critics, Northrop chief test pilot Bruce Hinds and Air Force pilot Col. Richard Couch will appear in a series of meetings on Capitol Hill along with top Air Force and Pentagon officials.
After breakfast, they will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The public hearing was reportedly orchestrated by Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), a major supporter of the B-2, who prodded the Air Force to make the pilots available.
In the afternoon, the pilots are scheduled to be hosted by Rep. Robert W. Davis (R-Mich.), along with Air Force Secretary Donald Rice and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch.
"There will be more brass than you can melt down," one official involved in the day's activities observed. The Air Force apparently is sponsoring the event, though Northrop, the B-2 prime contractor, agreed to send its pilot, Hinds.
"Anything that gets the facts about the aircraft out on the table is a good idea," said Northrop spokesman Les Daly. "There is nobody better to speak about it than the pilots who flew it. There are plenty of people talking about it who know little about it."
Bush Presses Support
Neither the committee nor the Air Force announced the planned hearing beforehand or put it on public schedules of the day's events in Washington. It was not clear why it was kept quiet.
Separately, President Bush called House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), along with other members of the panel, Thursday to the White House to press his support for the B-2. Additional White House meetings were reportedly planned for today.
The B-2 is under fire in Congress, mainly for its high cost--a proposed $70 billion for 132 planes. Some Congress members also question the usefulness of its mission. The plane is designed to elude radar during strikes deep into enemy territory.
The use of the test pilots in an potentially political role is apparently a new twist in aeronautics, one that gives pause to some members of the test pilot profession.
"I have never heard of anything quite like this, going to Congress at this stage," observed Tony LeVier, a retired Lockheed test pilot. "Obviously, they are trying to say something good about the airplane, to save it.
"I see nothing particularly wrong with it as long as they are being honest about it, but one flight under their belt hardly tells the story," said LeVier, who is president of SAFE, an organization to promote better pilot training. "That's ridiculous."
But Daly said, "Test pilots have testified before. This is not new."