The US Air Force (USAF) has released images of the developmental Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider strategic bomber in flight, as it maintains that the programme is on track.

One of the images shows the aircraft taking off from Edwards AFB, California, while the second shows it in flight, with its landing gear retracted.

B-21 taking off

Source: US Air Force

The B-21 taking off on 17 January. The aircraft is crucial to the rejuvenation of the USAF’s bomber capability

Typically for a test aircraft, the jet has a long pitot probe jutting from its chin, with a wire from the tail leading to what is likely to be a trailing cone. The equipment is essential for measuring parameters such as airflow and static pressure.

Metadata from the image of the B-21 taking off suggest that it was shot on 17 January. The USAF had announced that this was the date of the second test flight. The shot shows its left-side auxiliary intake door open. The auxiliary intakes provide airflow to the engines, which are deeply recessed in the aircraft. 

The metadata of the image of the aircraft in flight, however, appears to have been taken on 4 April, suggesting that at least three test flights have taken place. The aircraft’s maiden flight was in November 2023.

The in-flight image underscores the depth of the B-21’s fuselage, which is consistent with carrying a large payload of weapons.

The USAF notes that to speed up development, the B-21 test aircraft are as production representative as possible, built on the same line and with the same tooling as future production aircraft. In addition, the test aircraft include mission systems.

B-21 in flight

Source: US Air Force

The B-21 features instrumentation consistent with a test programme

The USAF also released recent remarks by Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We are in the flight test programme, the flight test programme is proceeding well,” says Hunter.

“It is doing what flight test programmes are designed to do, which is helping us learn about the unique characteristics of this platform, but in a very, very effective way.”

The B-21 will replace the Boeing B-1B and Northrop B-2. The USAF aims to obtain at least 100 examples, with service entry in the “mid-2020s”.

The developmental flying wing jet made its first flight in November 2023, launching from Northrop’s flight engineering and manufacturing centre in Palmdale, California – home of the USAF’s secretive Plant 42 site. The first B-21 example then landed at Edwards AFB, where the current test programme is ongoing.

Images of the inaugural B-21 sortie were captured by a freelance photographer. The flight was confirmed by the USAF at the time, although those earlier images were not officially sanctioned by the Pentagon.