March 03, 2021

The Raider Comes Out of the Black

The first B-21 stealth bomber will roll out of its California factory in early 2022 and make its first flight a few months later. The second, nonflying test model is also in assembly. Contracts should be coming soon for constructing hangars and maintenance facilities at operating bases. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the project appears to be on track. But how many Raiders will be built—and at what pace—remains an open question.

The first Raider is “really starting to look like a bomber,” said Randall G. Walden, director of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which manages the highly secretive program, in an exclusive interview with Air Force Magazine.

The B-21 will come out in the open for engine runs, taxi tests, and other necessary ground checks at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., plant in early 2022. The first flight should follow several months later, Walden said. That first flight will be a short, 36-mile hop from Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Once there, the 420th Flight Test Squadron will put the bomber to extensive aerial tests.  

Earlier forecasts of a December 2021 first flight were a best-case scenario, Walden said. The development team now thinks mid-2022 is “a good bet.” 

The second airplane is “really more about … the overall structural capability,” according to Walden. “We’ll go in and bend it, we’ll test it to its limits, [and] make sure that the design and the manufacturing and the production line makes sense.” 

Lessons learned in building the first airplane—which Walden noted is not yet in final assembly—are paying off on No. 2, he said.  Assembly is “going much faster” than on the first one, and the program is seeing “very high percentages of efficiency, as compared to No. 1.”

The progress on Nos. 1 and 2 is making room for more aircraft on the line, Walden mentioned, although the actual production capacity is a secret. There will be more than two test aircraft, but he declined to say how many. The B-21 contract calls for 21 initial aircraft in five lots.

“We want to make sure we’re efficiently using test ranges, and one way to do that is to have multiple test aircraft available,” Walden noted. In 2015, Air Force officials said the first aircraft will be “usable assets,” suggesting some test airplanes will be later reconfigured into operational machines. 

Time of the first flight will be “data driven,” Walden insisted, meaning it will take place only when the aircraft is ready, rather than according to the calendar. 

Bomber pilots and maintainers are embedded with the development team to provide insights and feedback on every aspect of the design, said Walden. “Building a future stealth bomber is a complicated endeavor, and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure we do that right.”