We interviewed Jeff Bolton who gave us tons of in-depth details about flying and filming in a Spirit Stealth Bomber as well as a new cool video filmed inside the cockpit of a flying U.S. Air Force B-2!
At the end of April 2019, for the first time in the 30-year history of the U.S. Air Force B-2 stealth bomber program, video footage showing the cockpit of a Spirit stealth bomber was released by Dallas-based film producer Jeff Bolton. As explained in-depth back then, along with air-to-air footage showing in-flight refueling, the historic video provided a rare glimpse into the cockpit of the U.S. Air Force B-2A flying with the 509th Bomb Wing out of Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.
Luckily, Jeff Bolton is also a long time fan of The Aviationist, so he gave us the opportunity to talk about his B-2 flight and to share more behind the scenes stuff from his epic mission.
Hi Jeff, can you provide a little background about this crazy flight?
The goal to fly and film (as crazy at that request sounded then and now) in the B-2 began in 2014. Briefly, I wanted to take a fresh editorial look at the U.S. nuclear enterprise with the re-emergence of the Russian nuclear threat, and the new, growing nuclear threat from China. So I began working with multiple USAF personnel at many levels to secure support for the project, and then one day I was “jocked up” walking to the jet. Just kidding. The entire evolution was an administrative, operational, emotional, and physical roller coaster. No kidding David, not to boast, but for context: as a civilian, I’ve done carrier ops in the Hornet, a low-level max G killer ride in the Viper including the 9g min radius turn, blasted around in the Harrier, and done the full stomach-churning demo in the T-6. And tons more. But the B-2 process was full up MENTAL. Working for five years on the project and not becoming discouraged with the many and varied ups and downs was an immense mental challenge. And… I wasn’t just looking to fly the airplane – I wanted to film aboard her in-flight. Multiple civilians have flown in the airplane, but no one in history – military or civilian – had ever photographed or filmed aboard. Ever. In fact, only a couple of cockpit photos while the airplane was parked had been officially released over the years, and a few unofficial stills had leaked out of the instrument panel…. but no still photography or video in flight. What I was asking for was flat out impossible. Laughable in fact. But I never stopped believing.
Why did you want to film inside a flying B-2?
The most important reason I wanted to film aboard is that I wanted to see the soul of a B-2 pilot. We all know the references that the “top one percent of the top one percent” are chosen to fly these ultra-secret weapons systems. What does that mean? How is it expressed in a young aviator entrusted with a multi-billion dollar national asset? The human stories of military people interest me the most. If I have any true calling in life it’s telling their stories and I’ve been doing that in war zones, fighting holes, natural disaster zones, ships, and aircraft for twenty years now. I’ve been asked by military parents to help them place their fallen children to rest. I love them and their service unabashedly and I want the world to know them… so that’s the “why” of the mission.
On the operational side, I’ve also been told tanking the B-2, particularly on the Iron Maiden, is an insanely difficult and nuanced ballet between a couple of blue whales – especially at night in the clag at the 36-hour point of a 44-hour mission! I wanted to see and share that with the world. I also wanted to know how was it possible for only two people to operate an extraordinarily complex weapons system like the B-2. It takes five people in the mighty BUFF, and four in the Bone. How could B-2 pilots do it with….wait …ONE competent person if I’m aboard. That’s right: with me in the right seat impersonating a sack of potatoes – in other words, useless beyond basic piloting skills – how could a single human fly, operate and tank the B-2!?!?!? So many unanswered questions about operating the B-2 after 30 years of the program!
So give us some more details about this specific mission!
The instructor pilot, call sign “Wolf”, and I, call sign “PITTA”, flew on October 16, 2018 near Whiteman Air Force Base in a MOA (military operating area) named, fittingly, Truman. I flew right seat and became “Spirit 691” when we were wheels up. Strange to think that only 691 people have flown aboard the airplane since 1989 so that was a huge and humbling honor for me. I was embedded with the Eighth Air Force 509th Bomb Wing’s 13th Bomb Squadron, known as “The Devil’s Own Grim Reapers”. Our mission call sign was “Death 13”, and our jet was the Spirit of Kitty Hawk, airframe number AV-19, Air Force number 93-1086. As you can see in the video and still photos, the airframe number 31086 is affixed in various places inside the cockpit and on the ACES II ejection seats.
We tanked on a KC-135 “Iron Maiden”, call sign “Wylie 22”, from the 190th Air Refueling Wing, aka the “Kansas Coyotes”, based in Topeka, Kansas. In the video and still footage you can see the “Kansas Coyotes” script on the ruddervators of the 135 refueling boom. We briefed to have multiple plugs and separations with the 135 so Wolf could complete his required aerial refueling (AR) currency evolution. He also completed his formation and landing currency requirements on the mission. As you can see in the video, Wolf makes an extraordinarily hard task look easy; tanking the B-2 is a bear at best and watching him complete such a difficult feat of airmanship was incredible. Note the fierce concentration on his face, the incredible number of stick and throttle inputs he has to make, and you’ll begin to appreciate the skill it takes in the B-2 in the AR environment. Oh, and we had a sunny clear day and were well rested. Imagine tanking for the fourth time, in the clag, at night, 30 plus hours into a mission when you’re exhausted and strung out. Varsity only.
At various points during the mission we were joined by two other B-2s: one that had launched earlier in the day and was returning from a training mission, and second one, “Death 11”, that launched after we did. We were also joined by two Whiteman T-38 photo ships – one shooting stills and one shooting video of our tanking evolutions, aerial maneuvering and landing. Their callsigns were Reaper 14 and Reaper 15 and they were flown by B-2 pilots.
Of note, visibility looking out of the aircraft is limited, and Wolf was extremely busy both coordinating with, and de-conflicting from, all of the other aircraft in our airspace. He was also remarkably generous in allowing me to hand fly the airplane for significant portions of the flight so again, a huge and humbling honor for me to get serious stick time in the jet. We flew for four plus hours in and around the Truman MOA, a pretty short day by B-2 standards. We debriefed in private after the flight with a senior B-2 crew. I passed. No downs for me and I was invited back. Big relief.
Before we go ahead with the next question, here’s the new previously unpublished video Jeff sent us:
Any activity in the cockpit required a special briefing or procedure?
We flew our intended mission a day earlier in the the B-2 simulator, called the WST” (Weapon Systems Trainer). The fidelity and systems in the WST (pronounced “wist”) are pretty terrific because experienced former B-2 pilots like “Vooter” make it so; flight time in the actual jet is so precious and valuable that the WST has to be identical to the operational jets because so much training is completed there. (After my flight with Wolf I actually went back to Whiteman and flew a 24-hour strike mission with “Whip” in the WST and at several points I couldn’t believe we weren’t actually flying.) Before and after the simulator flight we reviewed ground egress, ejection sequencing, potty procedures, communication guidelines and stuff that was my responsibility in the right seat. My policy when flying with military folks is to stay silent unless someone speaks to me and that worked well as Wolf was super busy in the left seat during the actual flight. He had me land the jet in the simulator and that was super cool – and to paraphrase him: “Well, if I eat the fish and it all goes bad tomorrow you can land us safely! I feel better!” That’s a hilarious reference that made me think of the movie AIRPLANE! It also has a serious implication: there are only two people in the jet and if one person is incapacitated for any reason then the other must land the airplane or you’re both riding the rails through the roof and making global news. That’s a sobering thought, but Wolf had confidence I would get us safe on deck if the need arose.
Were you asked to film in a specific part of the flight or not to film in one?
No, I was never directed to film or not film in specific areas inside the jet while in flight. (There were significant restrictions filming the exterior.) I did, however, make judgement calls during the flight and shot where I thought it was interesting, appropriate and clearable by the secrecy protection people and pilots. I knew all of the media I shot and recorded would be reviewed by multiple squadron, wing and DOD parties. I’ve been flying with the military for twenty years; some areas and equipment in the B-2 were clearly ultra secret and I made a decision not to shoot those areas and items. If I did shoot the secret spaces and equipment it would have all been cut out anyway, and it would have made the review process for the secret squirrels and pilots a lot harder. Bottom line is this: it was an honor to be the first person in history to film aboard the B-2 while in flight, and I wanted to be a humble guest, comport well and not screw the pooch. Can you imagine being the first person in history to film aboard the jet in flight and screwing it up? Man, I was terrified for 24 hours until Wolf told me the video, stills and audio were perfect. Big relief.
Has the Air Force requested to review your footage and photos to cut anything?
When Wolf and I landed the secret dudes were waiting and I handed over the photo bag including equipment and media cards. I was on the honor system – they didn’t search me or anything like that. They were good people with a very important job and I respect them. Several months later the stills, video and audio were all cleared for release and sent to me.
What kind of equipment did you bring with you?
Good question. I couldn’t bring my own equipment on the jet. They handed me a photo bag before I climbed into the jet with equipment they supplied. The equipment had also been cleared by them. Without naming brands, I can say that both the still and video equipment was from an era where we trusted the chipsbrains they contained. They were also devoid of any transmissiontracking capability, i.e. GPS, wi-fi or bluetooth.
Tell us something about your future projects
A lot of historic firsts like the B-2 flightfilming are on the way. I just flew the B-52H at Barksdale with the 96th Bomb Squadron “Red Devils” on a full-up, no kidding nuclear ALCM release training mission and it was just absolutely insane! We did a cart start, ran to the jet, manned up, roared into the sky and sim released something like 18 air launched nuclear tipped cruise missiles. Bonkers David. Absolutely bonkers. And I got it all on film! I’m due to fly the E-4B, KC-135 and F-15, a visit to an ICBM base, and a trip aboard a ballistic missile submarine will complete the coverage in Defense News of the STRATCOM mission set that started with the B-2 flight. Also working on a groundbreaking project on U.S. military ISR that will reveal cool stuff for the first time in history. And…really hoping to see you for dinner soon.
Thanks Jeff, keep up the great work!!!!
Make sure you have a look at Jeff Bolton website for additional photographs of the cockpit. A shorter cut of the video also appeared on DefenseNews website. Our previous story on Jeff Bolton’s flight can be found here.