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Everything You Need To Know (And See) About The Historic First Flight Of The B-21

B-21 first flight
The B-21 during its first flight (photo by @point_mugu_skies edited by The Aviationist)

We have noticed a lot of interesting details in the photos and videos of the new B-21 Raider bomber during its first flight.

At 6:51 a.m on Nov.10, 2023, the B-21 Raider stealth bomber finally took to the skies for its first flight from Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, escorted by an F-16 acting as safety chase on the way to Edwards Air Force Base. The U.S. Air Force did not disclose the planned day for the first flight, however dozens aviation enthusiasts and amateur photographers gathered near the airport waiting for the bomber to take off, according to Reuters.

“The B-21 Raider is in flight testing,” confirmed an Air Force spokesperson. “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.”

According to our sources, the first flight of the 6th generation bomber was initially slated to take place yesterday, Thursday Nov. 9, but it was cancelled, due to a technical issue. Then now, three weeks before the anniversary of its public unveiling, under the callsign RAIDER 33, the B-21 performed the long-awaited maiden flight which ended about an hour and half later with a safe landing at Edwards AFB at approximately 8:30 a.m.

This first flight, which was already expected to happen before the end of the year, follows the footsteps of the B-2’s first flight which on July 17, 1989, took off from Northrop Grumman’s production facility at Plant 42 in Palmdale and landed 112 minutes later at Edwards for developmental testing by the 420th Flight Test Squadron. The same squadron, reactivated in 2019, will plan, test, analyze and report on all flight and ground testing of the B-21 Raider.

Taking flight in the sunrise light, the B-21 offered the first full look at its planform and underside, while other details such as the number of engines is still unknown. The new sixth generation bomber will now start an intensive flight test campaign run by a combined test force comprised by Air Force and Northrop Grumman personnel that will validate the digital models used in the simulations, said the company in a statement.

Flight tracking websites showed a welcome party in the airspace above Edwards AFB waiting for the Raider’s arrival. In fact, a KC-135R tanker, callsign GHOST 27, was orbiting over the airbase well before the takeoff of the B-21, joined later by a C-12 Huron, callsign RAIDER 02, which apparently followed the B-21 from a distance as it was tracked while also orbiting Palmdale. Two other unidentified tracks were also visible, possibly related to the chase aircraft such as the F-16 seen in the first-ever video of the Raider in flight recorded by freelance news photojournalist Matt Harman.

The images circulating so far confirm the planform of the Raider, showing that it misses the saw-tooth trailing edge that can be found on the B-2 Spirit (actually, as explained in a previous post, the B-2 started with a planform similar to the one of the B-21, however that had to be changed to increase the stability during strike missions at low altitude, a requirement which has not been requested for the new sixth-gen bomber).

As in the photos of the ground testing, some photos of the first flight show once again the two unknown doors on the engines’ nacelles. One of most plausible hypotheses is a pair of auxiliary intake doors, opened from the rear by the engine control computer when the main intakes are not providing enough air for the power setting of the engine, as for the B-2. Another hypothesis circulating around is a pair of bleed air vents.

The Raider was trailing a wire with an air data probe for calibration. Other details that can be spotted are the stylized Northrop Grumman Flight test badge, which was already painted below the nose, now painted also below the left wing. On the nose gear door we can also see a logo showing the multi-headed dog Cerberus of the Greek mythology. The “belly” of the aircraft appears to be continuously curved, a shape surely designed to reflect as much radar waves as possible away from the aircraft, with the only flat area being the bomb bay.

The images we have seen so far were taken from outside the airport fence with the aircraft flying in clear in daylight, suggesting the Air Force isn’t too concerned the aircraft could be photographed by aviation spotters. In fact, as often mentioned by the officials, the real secrets that make out all the advanced capabilities of the B-21 are well hidden deep inside the aircraft.

In the meanwhile, Northrop Grumman is expected to receive soon a contract award for the first Low Rate Initial Production contract, which could cover up to 21 aircraft. Northrop Grumman, after mentioning that the award was expected immediately after the first flight, said that they are planning LRIP at a zero profitability due to higher labor costs and inflation, but the bomber will become profitable once it reaches full rate production.

About Stefano D’Urso
Stefano D’Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he’s also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.

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