For stealth bomber pilots, a new test in agility

For stealth bomber pilots, a new test in agility

When a B-2 Spirit bomber lands at an airfield, it typically needs a crew of several maintainers who spring into action to ready it for takeoff again.

But on May 28, two stealth bombers assigned to the 393rd Bomb Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, took on a unique mission: fly to Offutt AFB, Nebraska, where a single pilot from each aircraft would jump out and refuel the plane — alone.

“This is a new concept for pilots, generally speaking, to refuel their own aircraft, and do it in a timely manner,” Maj. Bo Bateman, a B-2 instructor pilot with the squadron, told Air Force Times.

As the Air Force focuses on how it might win a protracted and widespread conflict in the Pacific, part of its strategy is learning to be leaner. Under the “agile combat employment“ concept, a small team of multiskilled airmen should be able to quickly deploy to a new, potentially austere, airfield where they’d have to assemble their own operation with little to no additional support.

That flexibility can come in handy for the B-2 fleet, whose ability to carry conventional and nuclear weapons between continents make it a central piece of the Air Force’s strategy to deter conflict with other nuclear powers.

“This exercise is another fine example of bombers executing agile combat employment. It is the first time that the 393rd Bomb Squadron has executed B-2 ‘cold-pit’ refueling operations without the help of our maintenance professionals on the ground,” Col. Geoffrey Steeves, 509th Operations Group commander, which oversees the 393rd Bomb Squadron, told Air Force Times in a statement.

“Cold-pit” refueling is the Air Force’s term for gassing up a plane with its engine turned off.

“Ultimately, we are posturing the B-2 to meet the challenges of the ‘great power competition’ head-on,” Steeves added.

To prepare for the trip to Offutt, the squadron compiled multiple checklists used by maintainers and pilots to create a comprehensive flight-prep to-do list from the cockpit to the ground.

The pilots also spent a couple of hours in the classroom at Whiteman — the Air Force’s sole B-2 base — brushing up on how to service an aircraft. That training is already an annual requirement, Bateman said.

“Then we had two specific trips to the aircraft to work with maintenance personnel to run through the checklist and actually practice flipping the switches for the fuels and running the checklist and hooking up the fuel receptacle to the aircraft,” he added.

Planning for the operation meant the aircraft had to carry gear, like wheel chocks, a ladder, oil and hydraulic fluid, that it wouldn’t typically need because maintainers already have those supplies on hand, said Capt. Andrew Dang, a B-2 pilot with the 393rd and an operational planner for the training run.

While a small recovery team was on hand at Offutt to resolve any maintenance issues that could have popped up, Bateman and Dang said the operation went off seamlessly.

Bateman, who previously flew the T-6 Texan II trainer as an instructor pilot, had never refueled his own plane before. After landing at Offutt, he jumped out of the bomber, secured the landing gear, chocked the wheels, and hooked himself up to the aircraft’s communications system, with the fuel truck waiting far in the distance.

“It was pretty surreal, hopping down from the cockpit,” Bateman said.

Then he returned to the cockpit and continued down the checklist with his co-pilot, including shutting down the aircraft.

With the engines off, Bateman then turned to refueling, a multistep process that included pulling various circuit breakers and covering up the sharp edges around landing-gear doors. After the fuel truck arrived, Bateman climbed a ladder to connect the fuel hose and signaled to start the flow of gas.

“That was challenging because it needs to be seated properly,” Bateman said of connecting the hose. “With one individual, you really have to get creative and maneuver the hose into the appropriate spot.”

The team met its goal to complete the entire refueling, from landing to takeoff, within two hours.

“Two hours was not easy,” Bateman said. “But going through the checklist smoothly allowed us to do it safely, and we showed that we can do it successfully.”

While the 393rd was the first active duty B-2 squadron to complete such a mission, it built off of the work of the 110th Bomb Squadron, a Missouri Air National Guard unit at Whiteman that completed a similar operation with a larger maintenance footprint on a trip to Forbes Field Air National Guard Base, Kansas, in March. Those pilots also completed cold-pit refueling on their own; the squadron will keep working with the 393rd as they move forward with agile combat operations.

“We iterated on [the Guard unit’s work] and went from a crawl phase, where we had, essentially, handholding through the process, to now saying, ‘Look, we developed this checklist we can do this, don’t need help,’” Dang said.

Now that they’ve shown it can be done, the goal is to streamline the operation and make it more efficient across the B-2 community, Bateman said. Their next steps include running the operation without maintainers standing by, adding the pilot-turned-maintainer option to the training curriculum, and perfecting a packing list so the aircraft can carry the right equipment to get the job done.

For instance, Bateman said he had to wrestle a 6-foot ladder in and out of the bomber when a step stool would have been sufficient.

The end goal, Dang said, is to reach the stage where pilots can land, refuel and take off again without shutting down the aircraft’s engines — or “hot-pit” refueling.

In a contested or unfamiliar environment, “I don’t want to be on the ground any longer than I have to be,” Dang said.

Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.

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