An article published on May 20, 2022, by Air Force Magazine, revealed for the first time that the first B-21 Raider bomber, will not take to the air until 2023. Citing an unnamed U.S. Air Force spokeswoman, the report said that the U.S. Air Force is now projecting the first flight of its new stealth bomber 6 months later than it was initially expected.
“This estimate reflects the current status of the program,” she said, without attributing the delay to any particular cause. As Air Force Magazine correctly pointed out, many other high-profile programs, such as Boeing’s T-7A trainer, have experienced delays due to supply chain issues and labor shortages, the same kind of problems that are affecting other industry fields too.
In 2021, Randall Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said that a first flight in mid-2022 was a “good bet”. Back then, a second B-21 Raider bomber was under construction at Northrop Grumman’s facility at the United States Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. As of February 2022, at least six examples of the B-21 are under construction at Air Force Plant 42.
Here’s what we wrote about the possible delays in our previous story on the B-21 Raider program:
Obviously, even with all the precautions, there could always be some surprises along the way, especially when working on a complex program like the B-21. Walden said that the surprises are expected, and they are ready to solve them as they present themselves. For an instance, one of these surprises was discovered in 2018, when some thrust issues related to the bomber’s inlet and serpentine ducting were noticed and promptly solved, after some basic changes to the design.
The team working on the B-21, however, is trying to anticipate these problems. One of the means used to do this is a business-class jet used as avionics testbed to test hardware and software before transferring them to the B-21, similarly to what Lockheed Martin did with the Cooperative Avionics Testbed aircraft, better known as CATbird, while developing the F-35 Lightning II or the Flying Test Bed used while developing the F-22 Raptor. According to Walden, the jet is flying “real B-21 software”, assessing the integration of sensors and code into the future bomber test fleet, and is making good progress with satisfying results, giving the team “a lot of confidence” about powering up the first aircraft for its maiden flight next year.
The development program is highly secretive, with few info being disclosed. Earlier last year, the Air Force published three new renderings of the B-21, four years after the first one, giving for the first time a glimpse of the shape of the new bomber, which will have a lot of things in common with the B-2 Spirit. You can find a more detailed analysis in this previous article here at The Aviationist.
When it will finally enter service, the B-21 Raider will replace the B-1B Lancer and the B-2A Spirit, while also increasing the bomber fleet from the current 156 to the goal of 220 total bombers. The ability to meet this goal is closely related to the B-21 Raider development, as the Air Force is making sure that the aircraft will be affordable, sustainable and rapidly modifiable/upgradeable and, until the aircraft is ready, the B-1B readiness, the B-52H engine replacement program and the B-2A fleet deterioration.
The B-52H Stratofortress will actually continue to serve alongside the B-21 through 2050, remaining still relevant thanks to the new stand-off capability added with the introduction of hypersonic weapons, but also thanks to major upgrades that will help the bomber to meet the demands of future combat scenarios it may encounter, mainly new engines, radar, weapons, and connectivity. Even if it’s 60 years old, the B-52H fleet is reported to be in very good health, with a 100% mission ready crew status on almost a regular basis.
Anyway, following the news of the postponed first flight, Northrop Grumman released an article to provide an update on the program.
In early May, Northrop Grumman successfully completed the first — and most critical — loads calibration test of the first B-21 aircraft. The recent test is one of three major conditions the aircraft will undergo in this phase of ground testing as it progresses toward first flight. Loads calibration, which focuses on calibrating instrumentation prior to flight and verifying structural integrity, has yielded positive and consistent results. During testing, the B-21’s airframe endures varying percentages of stress to ensure the aircraft can proceed on its path to flight readiness.
During the ground test phase, in addition to loads calibration, the team will power up the aircraft, test its subsystems, and apply coatings and paint. The next steps will include carrying out engine runs as well as low-speed and high-speed taxi tests, and then on to first flight.
From day one, Northrop Grumman has proactively worked to burn down as much production risk as possible. Throughout the Engineering, Manufacturing and Development phase, the company has emphasized risk reduction efforts and production readiness as one of the many priorities for the B-21 program. In line with the risk-based approach, the successful calibration test is a significant milestone that further validates the efficacy of the company’s digital design capabilities and advanced manufacturing techniques.
The first flight projection of 2023, as is now being reported by the Air Force, is aligned with the information communicated during the company’s Q1 earnings call and remains on-schedule to the government Acquisition Program Baseline.
As the Air Force has indicated, the focus is on a safe first flight of a production representative aircraft. With six aircraft in various stages of production and test, Northrop Grumman is progressing toward that objective as it continues to reduce risk, refine the building process, and mature the test fleet ahead of first flight.
Randy Walden, director of the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and program executive officer of the B-21 Raider program, recently said, “The B-21 test aircraft is the most production-representative aircraft, both structurally and in its mission systems, at this point in a program, that I’ve observed in my career.” With the first aircraft in the ground test phase and a successful loads calibration under its belt, Northrop Grumman is paving the way for the B-21 Rollout later this year and first flight in 2023.
Therefore, based on the current plans, we should have a first look at the highly secretive aircraft some time this year, with maiden flight in 2023. It’s not clear when the new bomber will be ready for service: it was initially expected around 2026 or 2027, with Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, being the preferred location for the first B-21 main operating base, and Dyess AFB, Texas, being the alternative, but that timetable might need to be revised as well.
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