The U.S. Air Force’s B-21 “Raider” bomber shaped like a flying wing took its first flight on Friday, the next step in rolling out a new fleet of long-range nuclear-capable stealth bombers built by Northrop Grumman, according to a Reuters witness.
The B-21 left Northrop’s facility at the Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, at sunrise offering the first unscripted look at the new bomber which has been developed under strict security.
The plane took off at 6:51 a.m., according to a Reuters witness. Air Force leaders did not publicize the B-21’s first flight, but about three dozens aviation enthusiasts and amateur photographers gathered around Plant 42 on Friday hoping to see the bomber take to the skies.
The B-21, which carries the same “flying wing” shape of its predecessor, the B-2, will be able to deliver both conventional and nuclear weapons around the world using long-range and mid-air refueling capabilities.
The aircraft are projected to cost approximately $550 million each in 2010 dollars, or about $750 million in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars. However, the Air Force has kept other price information classified, “which makes validating the proposed cost difficult,” the Congressional Research Service said in a 2021 report.
The Air Force plans to buy at least 100 of the planes and begin to replace B-1 and B-2 bombers. The B-1 costs about $60,000 per hour to operate and the B-2 costs about $65,000 per hour, according to Pentagon data.
Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokesperson said, “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 Wings B-21 Combined Test Force.”
Six test aircraft are being produced now. They are being built on the same line, using the tools, processes and technicians that will build the production aircraft.
Northrop beat out a team comprised of Boeing and Lockheed Martin when it won the 2015 contract to make the bomber. Engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, Collins Aerospace, GKN Aerospace, BAE Systems and Spirit Aerosystems are among the more than 400 suppliers in 40 states.
The B-21 was publicly unveiled in December 2022, but anticipation surrounding its first flight has been building for years.
In 2019, one top Air Force general hinted that the bomber could fly as early as December 2021, but the service later pushed that date to mid-2022. In early 2022, the Air Force further delayed it until 2023.
Northrop is calling the plane a sixth generation aircraft given its ability to connect to other aircraft and easily integrate future weapons into its systems architecture.
The B-21 also features more durable, stealth-enabling low observable surface material that is expected to require less maintenance and decrease operations costs and downtime.