For These B-2 Pilots,
KNOB NOSTER, Mo. -- A few days ago, the pilot of an Air Force B-2 "Stealth" bomber flew from here to Yugoslavia, where he risked missile fire and MiG-29 attacks to drop more than a dozen 2,000-pound "bunker busting" bombs. Then, without touching ground, he turned around and winged it back to his base here, 65 miles southeast of Kansas City.
When he got home, recalls this blond son of the Midwest, "my wife kissed me, and she said, `You need to mow the lawn. I'll go get the kids.' " After he did his chores, "we ordered out for Pizza Hut, because it was a special occasion" -- the completion of his first combat mission.
A LONG REACH
For the first time in history, the U.S. is carrying out a sustained bombing campaign partly from its own soil. More than 30 times in the past month, a B-2 bombera plane that, with its 172-foot wingspan, looks like a giant black boomerang-shaped spaceship -- has flown the 30-hour mission from Whiteman Air Force Base to Yugoslavia and back. That means the U.S. is demonstrating an unprecedented capability to reach out and touch its adversaries. With precision bombs and aerial refueling from military tanker aircraft, notes Brig. Gen. Leroy Barnidge Jr., the commander here, "there's not a target on the planet that we can't hit."
For the 45 B-2 pilots based here, it has meant something unique in American military life. Rather than flying from airfields in the Saudi Arabian desert in the Gulf War, or from Guam in the Vietnam War, or from the South Pacific, England and Italy in World War II, they are living at home while also acting as combatants in a war in a faraway land about which their neighbors know little.
Late last week, for the first time since the war against Yugoslavia began March 24, the Air Force allowed several of the pilots to be interviewed. It wouldn't allow their last names to be used, and the pilots went a step further, banning first names -- partly out of worry about being pumped for classified information about their high-tech planes if they are captured, and also out of concern about possible terrorist responses against their families. But they talked in some depth about the experience of bombing Belgrade one day and driving up Interstate 70 for a Kansas City Royals baseball game the next.
One black-haired major recalls being on alert as a backup pilot one afternoon: "I was running errands, picking up kids at the football practice, and thinking, 'Wow, I could be in combat tonight.' "
The blond captain who had to mow the lawn listens to this account and nods. "It's one of those surreal events," he says. That adjective, along with "weird," was used by several of the pilots to describe their experiences.
GET DRESSED, GO TO WORK
"The first mission was actually his birthday," says the wife of one B-2 pilot. "I packed him a lunch with some birthday cake in it. The next day was my son's soccer game, and he scored his first goal." Her husband, back home in time to witness the feat, was "proud as a peacock," she says. But she found the experience "very strange -- to drop bombs and then come home and watch my son's soccer game."
As a joke, she says, she greeted her husband with what she calls a "honey-do" list when he came home from one mission -- and actually got him to finally put the knobs back on her dresser.
"It is kind of weird to get dressed in your own bathroom and then go into combat," says a bald captain as he sits in the left-hand seat of a B-2 cockpit.
These pilots aren't the rowdy fighter pilots portrayed in "Top Gun" and "The Right Stuff" -- though many used to be, before they made the transition from F-15s and B-1s to the B-2. They tend to be more mature and are generally married and happily settled into family life in smalltown America.
Like them, the aircraft with which they are entrusted -- the most expensive in history, at $2.2 billion a copy -- is valued for its stability and unobtrusiveness. The B-2, which carries a two-person crew, was designed around the concept of being "low observable." Its shape and its surfaces are devised to deflect or absorb radar waves. Its engines are unusually quiet for a warplane and disperse their exhaust across the top of the plane, the better to avoid heat-seeking missiles from below. The cockpit, with its long sloping windshield and two high-backed seats (with room enough behind them for lying down), feels uncannily like the front seat of the minivans these pilots drive to soccer practices and to the Wal-Mart down Highway 50 in Warrensburg.
The B-2 remains based here, rather than at some overseas outpost closer to the action in Yugoslavia, partly because it has an elaborate support system here, but also because its advanced design and operation remain so secretive that the Air Force wants to keep it away from prying eyes. Indeed, pilots here park the plane in hangars specially designed so that everything from refueling to bomb-loading can be done inside, out of the view of spy satellites. Flying this way is expensive, though; each mission costs an estimated $441,270.
Pilots begin preparing for each mission when they are notified they are on the action schedule, about a week ahead of time. They begin to adjust their sleep patterns to maximize their alertness during the mission. To do this, they can move into quarters on base. Most have elected to stay at home.
On the day of the mission, they do a final review of mission plans, weather conditions and updated intelligence on air defenses and targets. Then they taxi the plane out past Hangar T-9, whose side is emblazoned in big brown letters with the slogan: "Global Power for America."
Much of the 15-hour flight to Yugoslavia is taken up with monitoring the plane's elaborate electronics. The bomber is refueled by an aerial tanker twice each way. Each of the two crew members follows a schedule and gets at least three hours of sleep per mission.
On breaks, many pilots chow down on the traditional "bomber dogs" -- hot dogs and chili -- warmed with the heater just behind the second pilots' seat. The blackhaired major carefully disciplines his food and fluid intake, sipping water constantly and drinking a cup of coffee about 20 minutes before entering hostile airspace. On his one mission, the blond captain took a less-regimented approach: "I went through two gallons of water, a liter of Mountain Dew, half a bag of nachos, some chocolate."
Some pilots here have flown multiple missions, some only one or none at all. They say very little about their actual bombing runs on Belgrade and other sites. But they insist that their sorties, while flown at high altitudes, are hardly antiseptic flyovers. "If you see missiles and things in the air, it definitely feels like combat," reports the black-haired major.
When they leave hostile airspace, an officer back at the base calls their wives. About 15 hours later, they touch down at Whiteman. After two hours of postmission "debriefs" -- on maintenance, weather, intelligence, and mission planning -- they are free to go home. It is then, says the bald pilot, that "the reality sets in."
One pilot says that when he went home after his first bombing mission, his wife was still at work. "I took a good shower, took a nap for two hours, and then cooked dinner for my wife -- spaghetti -- so it was ready when she got home from work."
The wife who packed birthday cake in her husband's lunch says she much prefers this arrangement to having him deployed to the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, as he was when he flew 17 B-52 missions against Iraq in the Gulf War. Back then, she kept a list of questions for him on a bedside table to ask when he called for one minute about once a week, usually at 4 a.m. Having him fly from home, by comparison, "I feel pampered, almost guilty. He's here, I know where he's going, and they call when he gets out of danger."
She is now growing accustomed to this new way of war. "We know Dad's working all the time, and Dad sleeps a lot," she says, "so maybe I don't vacuum as much."
But there are still moments, she says, when she turns on CNN, remembers where he is at that moment, "and I'll get a little shaken up." Over the past month, she says, she has memorized Psalm 91: "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty." Her favorite verse, she says, is the 11th: "For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways."