The secretive next-generation stealth bomber under development by the Northrop Grumman for the US Air Force (USAF) has left the ground for the first time.
Photos and video circulating on social media on 10 November show the B-21 Raider flying-wing-type bomber launching from a runway in Palmdale, California – home of the secretive Plant 42 industrial facility where Northrop is developing the new stealth bomber.
The Raider, with its distinctive flying-wing shape, slowly climbs over a desert roadway in footage captured by freelance photographer Matt Hartman.
The airborne B-21 is flanked by an observation aircraft that appears to be a small jet fighter. Hartman also captured multiple still shots of the Raider, including an image of the type’s tricycle configuration landing gear still deployed during take-off.
The USAF confirmed to FlightGlobal on 10 November that the B-21 was airborne.
“The B-21 Raider is in flight testing,” the service says. “Testing is a critical step in the test campaign managed by the Air Force Test Center and 412th Test Wing’s B-21 Combined Test Force.”
Northrop also confirmed to FlightGlobal on 10 November that it has launched the flight test campaign in partnership with the USAF.
”The robust flight test campaign is being executed by a combined test force comprised of Northrop Grumman and air force personnel that will validate our digital models and moves us another step closer to reaching operational” status, the company says.
The 412th Test Wing is located at Edwards AFB, which sits less than 20km (12 miles) from Plant 42. The unit oversees flight testing and evaluation for new USAF aircraft, including the Boeing T-7 jet trainer, which arrived at Edwards on 9 November.
A Reuters reporter outside Plant 42 on 10 November said the B-21 lifted from the Palmdale runway at 6:51h local time.
The USAF says the B-21 programme remains in the engineering and manufacturing development phase, during which the service and its prime contractor will evaluate the prototype’s design and establish a plan for low-rate initial production (LRIP).
Six B-21 test aircraft are under production by Northrop. The team will use those jets to inform flight testing as the Raider programme moves toward a LRIP decision.
“First flight is a milestone that the air force is looking to achieve before they make that [LRIP] award,” Northrop chief executive Kathy Warden said on a 26 October earnings call with investors.
Warden said Northrop expected to achieve the B-21’s first flight before the end of 2023, and to receive a B-21 LRIP contract from the USAF shortly after.
The USAF expects to receive the first operational B-21 sometime in the mid-2020s and to station that jet at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota, which will be the B-21’s main operating base.
With plans to purchase at least 100 Raider stealth bombers, the USAF plans for the type to replace its entire fleet of Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bombers and Rockwell B-1B heavy conventional bombers.
The air force describes the B-21 as a long-range, highly survivable, penetrating strike stealth bomber capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions. Those functions are currently divided amongst the USAF’s combined bomber assets, including B-2s, B-1s and Boeing’s B-52 Stratofortress.
“The B-21 will provide our nation with a strategic asset capable of penetrating enemy air defences in highly contested environments and striking targets anywhere in the world,” the air force says.
It expects B-52s will continue flying for several decades alongside Raiders and plans to modernise the Cold War-era heavy B-52 bombers, which will then be designated B-52Js.