The B-2 Spirit, America's sole heavy stealth bomber, is getting upgraded ejection seats, the latest in a series of upgrades for the multi-role bomber to keep the aircraft flying into the 2050s.
The Air Force on Tuesday awarded AMI Industries Inc., a United Technology Corp. subsidiary, a $14.4 million contract to develop upgraded Advanced Conception Ejection Seat II as part of the service's Safety and Sustainability Program, according to a Defense Department contract announcement.
The B-2 and other aircraft such as the A-10, F-15 and F-16 already use the technology.
Air Force budget documents for fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1, show the service has been planning to acquire upgraded seats for the B-2, under the research, development, test and evaluation line. The award, however, will also use RDTE funds from fiscal 2015.
"This contract provides for a safer means of escape for Air Force pilots, and reduces the cost and time for maintenance when removing or installing seats," the announcement said.
The ejection seat will feature a detachable seatback and "bucket structure that does not require removal of the B-2 escape hatches for any maintenance task," it said.
In 2008, the B-2 "Spirit of Kansas" crashed when taking off from Andersen Air Base in Guam, the only B-2 crash in its history. Both pilots ejected safely through the cockpit roof.
The bulk of the aircraft, including its roof, is encased in radar-absorbent coating, called alternate high-frequency material, which enables its stealth. Think of it as the B-2's Batsuit.
Because the updated ACES seat will be more modular, crews could remove the seat through the entry hatch, without having to remove top escape hatches, as would be required if the seat was one piece. Whether this could help preserve some of the stealth coating should a pilot eject wasn’t immediately clear.
The Colorado Springs-based company is expected to complete development and testing by December 2018.
The 1980s-era aircraft, with 20 in the Air Force's fleet today, is expected to keep flying with other improvements to its communication, software, weapons and stealth architecture. With new technologies coming online in adversarial aircraft, the B-2 upgrades are designed to allow the aircraft to outmaneuver various offenses.
One such enhancement will prevent emerging threats from detecting its location by increasing the B-2's frequency awareness with antennas and other hypervigilant electronics as part of a program called Defensive Management System Modernization.
"The whole key is to give us better situational awareness so we are able to make sound decisions in the cockpit about where we need to put the aircraft," Maj. Kent Mickelson, director of operations for 394th combat training squadron, recently told Scout Warrior in an interview.
The B-2 has operated in diverse combat scenarios, including Operation Allied Force in Kosovo; Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and most recently, in Libya, during Operation Odyssey Dawn.
This post was updated Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.