This may just be my favorite Aviation Week article of all time. It explores, in depth, just how influential the B-2 bomber has been; a quarter-century later, plane-makers are still leveraging lessons they learned from building the thing.Best of all -- and most unusually, for AvWeek -- the article is actually written (for the most part) in English, not in Pentagonese or aeronautical engineer patois. So we can all appreciate how freakin' cool the B-2 really is.By almost any measure, the bomber's development was one of the largest, most technically complex, expensive and demanding programs in aerospace history. But the final product dramatically changed air combat forever. The B-2's "stealth" or low observability (LO) enables unprecedented penetration of enemy territory, essentially neutralizing very costly air defense systems. Precision weapon delivery in all weather conditions, day or night, changed an air warfare tenet from "sorties per target" to "numbers of targets per sortie." In the B-2's case, a single bomber carrying 16 conventional weapons can destroy 16 targets. The same mission once would have required dozens of aircraft dropping hundreds of bombs...[The B-2 relied on] all-composite skins and structures--the first aircraft to use composites so extensively. This challenge was considered so risky that, for a while, a second team was set up to design an aluminum wing in parallel. A metal structure would have been much heavier, greatly reducing the B-2's range-payload capability. Thus, a considerable effort was devoted to developing a composite version, and it paid off; the aluminum-wing option was dropped before the first Preliminary Design Review took place. "Today, [developing a composite wing] seems straightforward, because the world's used to composite vehicles. But it was a big deal then," Myers notes.The bomber would have to be designed as an integral system, then manufactured to extremely tight tolerances, to meet LO requirements. Consequently, the B-2 became the first aircraft designed completely via computers, ensuring design and fabrication phases were tightly coordinated, Myers says. However, the analytical models and computer-aided-design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM) tools to accomplish this weren't available in the early 1980s.In particular, the active flight control system dictated that the entire aircraft be modeled precisely. "I could easily count on one hand the number of people in the [U.S.] who had tried to go through the analytical process for an [active] flight control system," says Myers, who headed that critical risk-closure area at the time...During the Cold War, weapon system performance was given top priority, trumping cost considerations. Whatever resources were deemed necessary to meet national security goals, they were made available, despite the cost."We kept a top-10 list of [B-2 concerns] on the briefing-room wall," Myers recalls. "We were seven years into the program before 'cost' made that list." But those days are gone. "I'm not sure we'll ever see another program like that again," he adds.
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