WASHINGTON — Sorry, aviation geeks: The first flight of the U.S. Air Force’s latest stealth bomber won’t be happening this year.
The Air Force had once projected the first flight of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider would occur in December 2021, but the new bomber will not be ready to roll out until early next year for a flight in mid-2022, said the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director, Randall Walden, according to a Jan. 15 story in Air Force Magazine. The RCO manages the B-21 program on behalf of the service.
Two B-21s are under construction at Northrop Grumman’s production facility in Palmdale, California. The first aircraft hasn’t made it to final assembly yet but is “really starting to look like a bomber,” Walden told Air Force Magazine.
“The second one is really more about structures, and the overall structural capability,” Walden said. “We’ll go in and bend it, we’ll test it to its limits, make sure that the design and the manufacturing and the production line make sense.”
Although information about the B-21 is notoriously limited, with many details of the Raider’s cost, appearance and capability classified, Walden offered a couple optimistic notes about the program’s progress.
For one, production of the B-21 is already becoming more efficient during the build of the second aircraft, he said. Northrop Grumman is using a business jet as a test bed for new avionics and software, allowing those systems to be debugged before they are installed in the B-21 aircraft.
While there have been some disruptions to the supply chain due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Walden said the program has worked with companies to mitigate changes to the production schedule.
“In the last few months, we did another successful end-to-end demonstration to further mature that hardware and software, and it’s working quite well,” Walden said. “We’re preparing ourselves not just for first flight, but ultimately the subsystem testing that will be required during those flight test phases.”
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The Air Force has committed to buying at least 100 B-21s, although officials such as Gen. Timothy Ray, who leads Air Force Global Strike Command, said more will be needed to meet the service’s future bomber requirements, which could be in excess of 220 aircraft.
The service is expected to make a final decision this year on which bomber installations will first host the Raider. In March 2019, the Air Force picked Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota as its preferred location, with Dyess AFB in Texas as an alternate location.
A virtual industry day was held Jan. 11 to provide information on contract opportunities for construction projects needed to support B-21 operations. Those facilities could include a “low-observable restoration facility, a wash rack and general maintenance hangar, and a mission operations planning facility,” according to the Air Force.
The service expects to begin fielding the B-21 in the mid-2020s.