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B-2 stealth bombers get meticulous makeovers

At Northrop Grumman's complex in Palmdale, the high-tech aircraft are refitted and repainted in a process that takes a year and costs $60 million per plane.

June 10, 2010|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

It's expensive to maintain because it is a technological marvel, said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a website for military policy research. "It's a complicated plane, so it's difficult to care for," he said. "Most of the time there are more B-2s on the rack than on the ramp."

The work is done in custom-built hangars that have special filtered vents for keeping the interior free of dust and maintaining a constant temperature year-round.

That's because the B-2's coat, which acts more like a skin than paint, is sensitive to heat and humidity.

The high-tech coating acts like a sponge that absorbs radar waves as they strike the plane. Even though the bomber has a wingspan nearly as long as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, it looks the size of a tennis ball on a radar screen. The chemical composition of the coating is top secret.

Because of the special coating, when it comes time for an overhaul even the most mundane tasks become herculean. Technicians can't simply scrape it off, it needs to be blasted off with wheat starch, an environmentally friendly material that looks like flour.

Workers then pop open the plane's 100-plus access panels to replace worn wires and update electronic equipment. The original on-board radar systems and computer processors are swapped out with new hardware.

Other technicians scour the bomber for any nicks or dents that need to be patched up so the surface remains as smooth as glass for the new coating. Northrop declined to say how long it takes.

After the first coat is applied by robotic sprayers, technicians hand polish the surface to a required thickness, which cannot be off by more than a thousandth of an inch. Any variation reduces the skin's ability to absorb radar waves. After several more coats, the surface takes on a hard rubber-like feel.

Exactly how long each process takes is top secret.

But the overall time it takes for the overhaul is a dramatic improvement from five years ago, when it took two years. Northrop said it was working to speed up the process to less than a year.

"This process is constantly being improved," said Gregory L. Weed, director of Northrop's depot and modifications center. "Now it takes a year. And we think we can do better than that."

Although there is nothing else like the B-2, it's still a plane from the 1980s built with 1980s technology, said Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. Other countries have developed new ways to expose the B-2 on radar screens, so the Air Force has to upgrade the bomber in order to stay ahead.

"Technology doesn't stand still; it's always moving forward," he said. "It may cost an arm and a leg, but you don't want the B-2 to fall behind the times."

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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