There’s an old expression that says, “Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual.” But if you happen to find yourself standing in the cockpit of a B-2 stealth bomber-as I did recently-you may be intrigued to learn that the costliest, most sophisticated aircraft ever built by mankind does, in fact, come with a relatively simple instruction manual.
It’s not exactly B-2 for Dummies . But there it is, attached to the mission commander’s thigh by two thin strips of Velcro: a black Filofax-size notebook whose laminated first page begins with the following elegant, if somewhat understated command:
In accordance with AFI 11-215, the air crew is required to use this checklist when operating the B-2 aircraft.
I’m filing this dispatch from Knob Noster, Mo., home to Whiteman Air Force Base and the 21 stealth bombers that make up America’s B-2 fleet. Sixty miles southeast of Kansas City, this is where the B-2′s took off for their bombing attacks on Kosovo, and where they returned, after refueling four times in midair during the 30-hour flight.
I’m here on this Sunday morning in August to attend an air show and meet with B-2 pilots as research for a screenplay I’m writing for Warner Brothers. The producer of the film and I began the day by watching the pilots prepare for today’s training mission; we then accompanied them out to the hangar (in B-2 parlance, a “dock”), stepping over the red line painted around the perimeter of the plane (“Warning. Restricted Area: Deadly Force Authorized Beyond This Point”), and finally, under the watchful gaze of several M-16-wielding Air Force sharpshooters, climbed into the cockpit for a look around. Finished in matte black, it’s smaller than I expected, with fewer switches and dials than a commercial airliner. The pilot, who’s older and more of a “regular guy” than I expected, offered the following wry insights:
1. This afternoon’s target is secret, although “it’s safe to assume we’ve practiced bombing runs on every major city in America.”
2. On long missions, it’s strictly “pack your own lunch.” The Air Force doesn’t provide food or beverage service.
3. Yes, there are pages in the manual titled “Nuclear Weapons Delivery Checklist” and “Procedures Following the Delivery of Nuclear Weapons,” but I can’t look at them.
4. Does it fly itself? “You mean, can a monkey fly it?” Beat. “So far as I know, they haven’t tested it with a monkey yet.”
Back on the ground, the producer and I put on two levels of ear protection-earplugs, plus headphones-and spent the next 45 minutes watching the crew prepare to take off. The sound was incomprehensible-an awful, shrieking, mind-scrambling thunder.
As the B-2 taxied to a distant runway, we drove to the far end of the base, joining the 65,000 civilians who’d shown up to walk among B-1′s, B-52′s, F-15′s, a U-2, F-117 stealth fighters and countless helicopters and transports stretched out for almost a mile on the concrete.
On one hand, the display was so overwhelming that I found it difficult to be cynical; but on the other, even in Missouri, I remained a New Yorker. So when the producer gasped, “Who are these people?” I couldn’t help but reply: “They’re our audience, dummy. They have real lives. They’re the people who won’t be watching all the network TV shows about the entertainment business this fall.” As the producer laughed, I started to say that a gray C-17 transport looked remarkably like a sport utility vehicle-sort of a flying Range Rover-and would be the perfect way to one-up the Gulf Stream crowd in East Hampton next summer. But my words were crushed by the shearing thunder of the B-2 flying over the crowd-looking otherworldly, like an apparition, a U.F.O., a bat-before it turned at an oblique angle and seemed to disappear before our eyes.
And for a long moment, all 65,000 people stood silent and astonished in the Missouri sunlight.
The next morning, we met with several pilots at their headquarters-a building that’s actually shaped like a B-2.
I’d been asked not to describe the pilots too closely. But my first impressions were confirmed: more Harrison Ford or Tom Hanks than Val Kilmer or Sean Penn. Most are former B-52 pilots, mid-30′s to early 40′s, married, with children. Not just college graduates, but men with advanced degrees in engineering and physics, along with a few M.B.A.’s. They drive Hondas and are quick to add that given the seniority required to fly a B-2, the first women should be entering the program in a year or two.
Later, a pilot took me on a tour of the B-2 simulator. We chuckled, finding common ground in the fact that whether it’s making movies or flying B-2′s, our jobs are the envy of every 12-year-old boy in America. I asked what it was like to fly the first bombing mission into Kosovo. He thought, then began, almost reluctantly:
“It was strange. You fly in, alone, at night. And when you get over the target, you realize ‘This is for real. Can I do it?’ Then the training kicks in. ‘Of course you can.’ First you feel the plane lighten as the bombs drop. Then you see the flashes and hear the explosions-the first night we hit a refinery-and the jet gets buffeted by a shock wave.” He paused, shaking his head. “Twenty-four hours later, I’m barbecuing hot dogs for my family in Missouri. It’s slightly surreal. And I get into a long conversation with my father-in-law about this kind of warfare. I love him. He fought on the ground in World War II.” He hesitated, looking off at a giant American flag on the wall behind the simulator. “Don’t get me wrong. I think what we did in Kosovo was moral and right and just. But I wonder about the long-term implications of sanitized warfare-so far removed from the pain and suffering.” He sighed, adding, “I just wonder.”
As we drove off the base late that afternoon, I thought back on the words of the major from public affairs who arranged the trip. “You’ll go expecting to be impressed by the airplanes,” he said. “But you’ll come back amazed by our people.”
He was right. Now if I could only write the script in 30 hours.