America’s B-21 Just Became the First New Bomber in 34 Years to Make its Maiden Flight

On November 10 the Northrup Grumman B-21 Raider intercontinental range strategic bomber made its maiden flight, with a video taken outside the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, California showing the first flight prototype take off for the first time heading to to nearby Edwards Air Force Base to begin formal flight testing. Air Force spokesman Ann Stefanek subsequently reported regarding the fight: “The B-21 Raider is in flight testing. Flight testing is a critical step in the test campaign managed by the Air Force Test Center and 412th Test Wing’s B-21 Combined Test Force to provide survivable, long-range, penetrating strike capabilities to deter aggression and strategic attacks against the United States, allies, and partners.” The flight followed extensive taxiing testing in the preceding weeks which were intended to allow the Air Force to “mitigate risks, optimise design, and enhance operational effectiveness” according to a spokesman from the service. The first detailed images of the B-21 were published on September 12, revealing design features including small and strangely angled side windows, air inlets are very deeply buried within the airframe and deeply blended engine intakes and nacelle areas all apparently intended to minimise the aircraft’s radar cross section. 

The B-21 was initially scheduled to make its first flight in 2020, with years of delays having raised the possibility that the aircraft could begin flying after its Chinese rival the H-20 had already started flight testing. It is the first clean sheet bomber airframe to make its maiden flight since the B-2 Spirit made first flew on July 17, 1989, as the world’s first stealth bomber, with the B-21 having a significantly smaller shorter ranged airframe intended to be much cheaper to produce and operate. After issues and cost overruns with the B-2 forced a cancelation of 100 of the planned 120 production airframes, leaving the troubled aircraft serving in just a single squadron, efforts to ensure B-21 program avoids similar problems can be widely fielded across multiple squadrons has the potential to revolutionise America’s ability to hold targets across the world at risk. While the sole B-2 squadron was recently left out of service for an extended period due to major accidents, B-21s are expected to see global deployments across multiple bases including to facilities outside American territory – which B-2s have been unable to do due to their requirement for special air conditioned hangars. Calls have continued to be raised for expansion of the planned fleet size to well over 200 B-21s, with much depending on the final operational costs of the aircraft and the degree to which its maintenance needs have been reduced relative to the extortionate requirements of the B-2. Following multiple delays in the B-21’s development, and severe delays and cost overruns to all America’s leading post Cold War tactical weapons programs, the avoidance of further delays to the first flight is expected to help restore a degree of confidence in the program.