A sneaky photo taken the last time a stealth bomber was unveiled shows why some parts of the new B-21 are still under wraps

  • On December 2, the US Air Force revealed its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider.
  • Security was strict, with officials tightly controlling how much of the bomber was visible.
  • That may have been an effort to avoid what happened the last time a stealth bomber was unveiled.

Security was tight when the US Air Force unveiled its new B-21 Raider stealth bomber on December 2.

Journalists and spectators could only glimpse the front of the aircraft from a distance, which made its details appear indistinct. But more interesting was that the event wasn’t held in the open air on a runway.

Instead, the rollout took place after sunset at Northrop Grumman’s plant in Palmdale, California, with the bomber partially inside a hangar. One reason for that may be what happened the last time the Air Force unveiled a stealth bomber.

On November 22, 1988, as armed guards patrolled the tarmac and a Huey helicopter circled overhead, the world got a chance to see the B-2 Spirit — the predecessor of the B-21 in look and function — at the same Palmdale facility.

As with the B-21, spectators were kept at a distance, and only the front of the B-2 could be seen. That was frustrating for those who wanted to see the rear of the B-2, especially the distinctive trailing edges and engine exhausts of the tailless flying-wing bomber, which would give clues to the aircraft’s capabilities and its stealthiness.

Despite the Pentagon’s efforts to limit how much of the B-2 could be seen, the bomber’s unique features were soon visible to the world through a series of events worthy of a spy novel or a screwball comedy.

‘Why should they care?’

B-2 stealth bomber rollout Palmdale

The rollout ceremony for the B-2A at Plant 42 in Palmdale on November 22, 1988.
US Air Force

In a feat that made aviation journalism history, enterprising reporters and photographers from Aviation Week magazine managed to get an overhead glimpse of the B-2, taking advantage of oversights in the Pentagon’s security measures.

“One of the driving functions to get us into this mode was, ‘Hey, if they were going to pull this thing out of the hangar into the open, I can guarantee the Russians are going to have a satellite overhead,” William Scott, a retired Aviation Week editor, said of the effort to get the photo.

“And if the powers that be don’t care if the Russians see the trailing edge, why should they care about the American people?” Scott told Aviation Week in an article about the photo scoop published on the same day as the B-21’s rollout.

The team considered several ideas, including flying a hot-air balloon over the B-2, which was dropped for safety reasons. Eventually they noticed that FAA’s notice to airmen — an alert known as a NOTAM — didn’t restrict flights in the area that were above 1,000 feet.

Aviation Week editor Michael Dornheim and photographer Bill Hartenstein flew a rented Cessna 172 to Palmdale Airport the weekend before the B-2 was unveiled.

“Dornheim performed several circuits and touch-and-gos to allay any potential suspicions from air traffic control, while Hartenstein tried out various telephoto lenses to guarantee he would have the best images of the day,” Aviation Week senior editor Guy Norris wrote this month.

When the big day came, security kept the crowd at least 200 feet from the front of the aircraft, while the low-flying Huey helicopter kept a watchful eye for intruders. But the Cessna circled overhead, unnoticed, as Hartenstein took photo after photo.

When the plane landed, Dornheim and Hartenstein “were just giddy,” Scott said. “They hadn’t got hollered at in any way by ATC [air traffic control] and I told them I hadn’t noticed anyone even looking up!”

The team then raced to meet Thanksgiving week deadlines. Hartenstein’s film was dispatched on an overnight FedEx flight to New York and emerged in the pages of Aviation Week as a beautiful, full-color photo of the B-2 — its trailing edges and exhausts fully visible.

US Air Force B-2 stealth bomber

A US Air Force B-2 stealth bomber.
Mai/Getty Images

A few days later, Scott got a call from Col. Richard Couch, director of the B-2 combined test force at Edwards Air Force Base. Couch said that some “civilians” were vowing that heads would roll over the leak. Couch said he told them “to get over it. We figured you guys at Aviation Week would do something like that anyway!”

Thirty-four years later, security at the B-21’s ceremony was tight both on the ground and in the air.

Officials imposed “very, very strict camera regulations” and restricted reporters from bringing cameras and recording devices into certain areas, according to Aviation Week editor Brian Everstine, who covered the rollout.

In the risers where reporters were seated, “a very ornery security man” measured cameras and tripods to ensure they weren’t taller than was allowed, Everstine said on Aviation Week’s Check 6 podcast.

US officials did issue a NOTAM this time, closing the airspace above the event, not that it would’ve mattered. “They didn’t even pull it totally out” of the hangar, Everstine said. “Even if there was anybody above, you wouldn’t be able to see the trailing edge.”

Secret, but not for long

B-21 Raider bomber

A B-21 Raider under cover during a rehearsal for its unveiling ceremony at Plant 42 in Palmdale on December 1.
US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Joshua M. Carroll

Is all this secrecy really necessary? Photographs can tell the enemy a lot about a weapon.

For stealth aircraft in particular, which have surfaces and components that are carefully designed to minimize the radar waves they reflect, a certain degree of covertness is understandable.

On the other hand, for an aircraft to be properly tested, it has to leave the hangar and face public exposure.

The B-21’s first flight is expected in mid-2023, and more photos of the aircraft are sure to emerge at that time, though program officials say they plan to keep the bomber’s tail area under wraps as long as possible, according to Air & Space Forces Magazine.

Of course, this assumes that foreign spies haven’t already ferreted out the secrets.

B-21 Raider bomber

The B-21 Raider after its unveiling on December 2.
US Air Force

Beijing in particular is suspected of fueling its rapid military advancement with the widespread theft of intellectual property, including materials related to crucial hardware like aircraft engines.

In 2010, a former Northrop engineer was convicted for selling classified information — including details about the lock-on range for infrared missiles against the B-2 — to China.

In 2015, documents leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden suggested that Chinese hackers had stolen plans for the F-35. China almost certainly used that stolen data for its J-21 and J-31 stealth fighters, which happen to resemble the F-35.

Despite the secrecy surrounding the B-21, it would not be surprising if China and Russia know more about the $700 million bomber than the US taxpayers who are funding it.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.