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BOOK REVIEW


A Pictorial History of the B-2A Spirit Stealth Bomber by Jim Goodall -- Schiffer Military History



Today, the B-2A Spirit represents perhaps the most potent and vital strategic air asset in the USAF inventory.  It was developed in the deep black world of the early low-observable (or stealth) technology boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Unveiled on 22 November 1988, the B-2 began its flight test and development process a few months later, and by 1998, initial operating capability was met.  Since then, the B-2 has continuously matured, from many improvements to software and other onboard systems, multiple cockpit layout updates, and what seems like an ever-increasing range of weapons – from the 30,000-pound GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator to the smallest of the GPS-guided Small-Diameter Bombs (SDBs).  The combat record of the B-2, from the skies over Kosovo to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere demonstrate that there is no aircraft currently in service that provides such versatility, precision, offensive punch, and ability to penetrate hostile airspace undetected.  It might be officially named Spirit, but crews unofficially refer to it as The Beast for good reason.  In this review, we sit down with the 2016 book A Pictorial History of the B-2A Spirit Stealth Bomber written by well-known aviation author Jim Goodall (USAF, Ret.) and published by Schiffer Military History.       

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Goodall’s 160-page large format book (coffee table-style, measuring in at 12” x 9”) on the B-2A is printed in full color on high-quality paper.  It is also the result of 18 years of work, and it shows.  This is a superlative book on the B-2, and I argue it is the best visual overview and visual history of the B-2 that’s ever been produced. 

An aircraft as sensitive as the Spirit is not easy to get a look at, and a detailed look is even harder to find.  Yet, Goodall has amassed a unique and richly detailed collection of 525 images that provide a visual tour of the airplane and its history.  Many of the photos come from the 509th Bomb Wing itself, providing a unique insider’s view.  Many others were shot by Goodall, and others yet still were contributed by esteemed aviation photographer and author Don Logan. 

In terms of text, there’s a short foreword by Dr. John Cashen, the designer of the B-2, and an introduction by the author.  The visual narrative of the book follows.  In all cases, the highest quality photography is accompanied by captions that serve as narratives unto themselves, imparting stories, technical details, or other historical facts and data points.

The book is divided into 16 photo essays (chapters), starting off with “The Early Years at Hawthorne” that traces the development of Jack Northrop’s flying wings and their indirect lineage to the B-2.  There are a few images of the earliest ATB concept model and drawings, along with a look at the TACIT BLUE technology demonstrator and its unique contributions to the B-2’s development.  Pre-production testing and development is explored with photos of RCS models covered next, and includes B-2s on a stick, few rare and enlightening images of Lockheed’s SENIOR PEG, escape system testing, and the B-2 Iron Bird test rig. 

Then, the book takes us into Plant 42 at Palmdale for a fascinating look at the construction of the Spirit.  There are some really interesting and unique views of the assembly line as well as the painting process of the B-2 (parts of which include application of toxic, stealthy compounds where painters wear personnel protective gear that looks to me to have been adapted from Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) standards.  Then, Goodall chronicles the delivery of one of the two static test articles to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Next, readers get a look at the famous 1988 roll-out and the subsequent flight test and development program, including validation of air-to-air refueling, use of external test rigs and unusual flight-test related external markings such as dayglo orange photo calibration targets and anti-icing calibration stripes (I’ve never seen those!).  Another very interesting section describes the use of a specially configured Navy Skywarrior – an NTA-3B – that checked out emissions and radar signatures of every B-2A using its custom-built hypersensitive radar and Skyballs cameras.     

The transition to operational life at Whiteman AFB is covered next, and includes an introduction to B-2 crewmembers including the Spirit’s historic first all-female crew.  Then, readers are treated to “An Inside Look at the Spirit” and “The Beast in Detail.”  There’s coverage of engine tests, simulators, egress trainers, flight gear and life support, and the anti-nuclear flash face shield.  The book also has the only known unclassified and low-quality photo of the AN/APQ-181 and two unclassified degraded radar images really does drive the point home that this low-probability-of-intercept radar is able to image targets better than targeting pods such as the LANTIRN or Sniper.  You also get a great look at details such as early and late cockpit configurations (up to the current P6 Mod cockpit layout), and external details from navigation to refueling lights, the astro-inertial tracker, pitot sensor ports, flight control surfaces, boarding ladder, nose and main gear plumbing and wiring, and various useful looks at the nose and main gear wells.  

A major section of “The Beast in Detail” covers the business end of the B-2: ordnance.  There’s very comprehensive coverage of bomb racks, rotary launchers, and the conventional ordnance carried inside the jet, from the Mk 84 to the JDAM family, JSSAM, and the monstrous MOP.  Of course, the B-2 is also a key element of the America nuclear deterrence.  So, the book also examines the B61-7, B61-11, and B83 Mod 1 family of nuclear weapons via B-2 flight test photos, images of training shapes on trailers and practice loading on the aircraft, and unclassified technical illustrations.

“On the Ramp” provides lots of shots of the B-2 on the ground to from Nellis to Guam and the snow-covered Missouri tarmac.  There’s a section describing in general detail what goes on inside the all-important LO Dock at Whiteman where B-2As are periodically stripped and nearly totally dismantled (i.e., phase maintenance) and then once again gain their low-observable coatings and other stealthy characteristics.  A lot of that is sensitive work, and only very general photos could be published of this part of the B-2’s lifecycle.  Still, it’s quite interesting.

“The Spirit Family Tree” brings the book towards its conclusion and features two page spreads featuring some of the best photography of each and every B-2A.  It’s a roll call documenting each jet from AV-1 (82-1066) “The Spirit of America” to AV-21 (93-1088) “The Spirit of Louisiana.”  Then, there’s a look at the sleek black T-38s operated by the 509th BW used in pilot training and the all-important “keeping up of hours,” considering the B-2 flight hours are minimized for a variety of reasons.  Attention then turns to a look at the 509th BW’s security forces squadron that keeps the Spirit safe and secure on the ground.      

One thing I noted about the “The Beast in Detail” section as well as pretty much every other part of the book:  the photos and text in particular capture the people behind the B-2 – from the youngest of airmen to vice wing commanders, contractors, weapons troops, LO specialists, Whiteman AFB air traffic controllers, and even the valiant working dogs that protect this national asset.  Some books are overly focused or excessively privilege “the machine.”  Here, you get technical information in spades, but its wonderfully balanced with the human side of The Beast, providing a concrete sense of the service, deep dedication, high professionalism, and just plain hard work that it takes to operate the B-2 at the tip of the spear. 

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There’s almost nothing to critique in this excellent volume.  However, I might have shifted a few sections into a bit of a different order.  For instance, I might have tacked on the NMSUAF’s B-2 (AV-988, the static test airframe) to the end of the B-2 roll call.  Still, the book’s organization works just fine, as-is.  A few pictures are reproduced in a fairly small scale and had me squinting just a bit. I assume this is probably due to low original resolution, but the pictures were used regardless because they contain important parts of the narrative.  And that’s okay! 

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Overall, this is a great book and an excellent reference on the B-2A Spirit.  It is both well written and immensely visually informative with all-around great illustrations.  It’s an instant classic in my evaluation and the best visual exposé of the B-2 that you can get.  Scale modelers will find it to be an invaluable technical reference for their build, especially if they have the new Modelcollect 1:72 scale B-2A kit (see our review HERE).  This is a must-have for fans of the B-2.  Students of American airpower, stealth technology, strategic bombing, and contemporary combat aircraft will equally find this book occupying a rather treasured place on their bookshelf for a long time.

    

Haagen Klaus
Scale Modeling News & Reviews Editor
Detail & Scale


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