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The B-1 Bomber Saga

From Concept to Cancelation

The concept behind the B-1 began in 1964 with a United States Air Force (USAF) requirement for an aircraft that could fly supersonic at high altitude and at high subsonic speed at low altitude. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara didn’t believe crewed bombers were necessary as a nuclear deterrent. He limited the project’s development to studies and component development. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird started the B-1A project in April 1969. The B-1A, serial number 74-0158, made its first flight on December 23, 1974. The estimated unit cost for the B-1A rose from an estimated $40 million in 1970 to $100 million in 1977. President Jimmy Carter canceled the B-1A program on June 30, 1977.


On October 2, 1981 President Ronald Reagan restarted the B-1 program and planned to order 100 aircraft. The B-1 was redesigned to reduce it radar signature as well as other improvements. The resulting aircraft was the B-1B. Critics claimed the B-1B was unnecessary because a stealth bomber was under development and would be available in less than a decade. The USAF spread the B-1B subcontracts such that every state in the continental United States had a B-1B related contract. This made it popular in congress. B-1B flight tests began on March 1983. The first production B-1B flew on October 8, 1984. A prototype B-1B crashed in August 1984. The crash killed 1 crew member and injured 2. A bird strike caused the crash of the first production B-1B on September 28, 1987. The B-1B’s engines were designed to ingest a 4-pound bird without causing significant damage.[i] In this case a B-1B engine ingested a 20-pound bird. The crash killed 3 crew of the six crew members.[ii] Rockwell International delivered the last B-1B on May 2, 1988.

In Operation Desert Shield almost every combat aircraft in the U.S. military’s inventory participated. It was the biggest U.S. military action since Vietnam. The B-52 was one of the stars of Operation Desert Storm. The B-1B was conspicuous by its absence. It was a moot point but it gave the B-1 detractors an opportunity to say, “we told you so”. The B-1s were performing their mission as the third leg of the U.S. military’s nuclear triad.[iii] The United States eliminated the nuclear mission for the B-1B in 1994.[iv]

[i] Los Angeles Times, B-1 Bomber ‘Ingests’ Birds, Crashes, September 29, 1987, http://articles.latimes.com/1987-09-29/news/mn-11023_1_bird-strike, last accessed 2/17/18.

[ii] The crash killed; Majors James T. Acklin and Wayne D. Whitlock, and 1st Lieutenant Ricky M. Bean. Major William H. Price and Captains Joseph S. Butler and Laurence H. Haskell survived the crash.

[iii] The three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad are; Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, nuclear submarines, and strategic bombers.

[iv] USAF web site, Fact Sheet, B-1B Lancer, published December 16, 2015, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104500/b-1b-lancer/, last accessed February 12, 2018.

The B-1B Lancer in Combat

The B-1B first saw combat in Operation Desert Fox, a 4-day bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998. Four B-1Bs flew Desert Fox missions. The Lancers used conventional 500pound bombs. An Iraqi barracks was one of the targets the B-1Bs destroyed. B-1Bs also flew Operation Allied Force missions.[i] Among the targets Lancers destroyed was a small arms factory at Krqgujeac. Six B-1Bs participated in Operation Allied Force. They flew less than 2% of the combat sorties. Lancers delivered over 20% of the total ordinance delivered during the Operation Allied Force.[ii]’

Operation Enduring Freedom began on October 7, 2001. B-1Bs made their first strikes against Afghanistan on Day 1 of the Operation. On December 12, 2001 a B-1B was flying from Diego Garcia on a mission to Afghanistan. The Lancer had multiple system malfunctions and crashed 50 kilometers from Diego Garcia. The crew ejected safely and the USS Russell rescued them. Ironically the B-1’s Defensive Systems Officer had the call sign “Lost”. Eight Lancers participated in the first 6 months of Operation Enduring Freedom. These B-1s dropped almost 40% of the total bomb tonnage delivered by the coalition air forces.[iii]’ The B-1Bs continued flying Operation Enduring Freedom missions. Some news coverage proclaimed the B-1 the star of the operation.

In Operation Iraqi Freedom B-1s flew less than 1% of the combat missions but delivered 43% of the Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). On March 30, 2003 B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s attacked simultaneous targets. These included leadership command and control targets. It was the first time these 3 aircraft types flew missions where they attacked simultaneous targets. On April 7, 2003 a B-1B, serial number 86-0138, dropped GBU-31s on the al Sea restaurant, a leadership target.[iv]

During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom B-1Bs flew bombing, show of force, overwatch, and reconnaissance missions. In Afghanistan in 2007 B-1Bs participated in a Search and Rescue operation when Taliban forces shot down a NATO CH-47 helicopter. A B-1B crew, Bone 23, won the 2009 Mackay Trophy for their actions on July 13, 2008. Bone 23 disrupted an attack by 200 Taliban troops. Bone 23’s intervention allowed coalition forces to regroup. In 2011 B1Bs flew 1,200 combat sorties, executed 3,000 tactical air requests, intervened in 432 ground engagements, and dropped 700 weapons. During the U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011 B-1Bs flew from Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota to bomb Libyan targets. This was the first time B-1Bs flew a combat mission for a continental U.S. base. On September 23, 2014 B-1Bs attacked ISIL forces. In November 2014 a B-1B destroyed a Khorasan Group weapons storage facility.

[i] Operation Allied Force was an air campaign against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. The operation lasted from Mary 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999.

[ii] USAF web site, Fact Sheet, B-1B Lancer, published December 16, 2015, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104500/b-1b-lancer/, last accessed February 12, 2018.

[iii] USAF web site, Fact Sheet, B-1B Lancer, published December 16, 2015, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104500/b-1b-lancer/, last accessed February 12, 2018.

[iv] The crew was; Captain Chris Wachter the aircraft commander, Captain Sloan Hollis the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Fred Swan and 1st Lieutenant Joe Runci werethe weapons systems offi1cers,

B-1B Stats

Power Plant

4 engines each with over 30,000lbs thrust

Maximum take off weight

477,000 pounds (216,634 kilograms)


75,000 pounds (34,019 kilograms)

Speed at sea level

900-plus mph (Mach 1.2)


84 500-pound Mk-82 or 24 2,000-pound Mk-84 general purpose bombs; up to 84 500-pound Mk-62 or 8 2,000-pound Mk-65 Quick Strike naval mines; 30 cluster munitions (CBU-87, -89, -97) or 30 Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispensers (CBU-103, -104, -105); up to 24 2,000-pound GBU-31 or 15 500-pound GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions; up to 24 AGM-158A Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles; 15 GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions


Four (aircraft commander, copilot, and two combat systems officers)

Unit cost

$317 million

© 2018 Robert Sacchi


Robert Sacchi (author) on May 27, 2018:

Thank you.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on May 26, 2018:

Robert... I thought I left a comment here.. this hub left me speechless.. hmm perhaps thats why I neglected to comment..

Robert Sacchi (author) on April 29, 2018:

Thanks for the excellent information.

Brad on April 29, 2018:


As I mentioned in your F20 article, I worked on the B1B in the 80s for four years.

As I recall the story about the Captain dying. The original B1 had a crew pod, and it would be able to disengage from the plane and all the crew would be in the pod, and the pod would have a parachute to float it down.

Apparently something went wrong on the way that the pod hit the ground. That was the story I heard when I was at Rockwell.

The reason that the B1 failed as I recall once again was that CA was the big benefactor. So the B1B succeeded because the plane was parceled across the country. So canceling it would affect more states than CA.

In the B1B, they went away from the detachable crew pod, to escape tubes, I believe it had 6 of them, 4 for the crew, and I think 2 for instructors. One of the reasons was of course the death caused by the failure of the pod of the B1.

The second was that the pod used explosives to separate it from the plane. And eventually the explosives would have to be replaced, and that was a 3/4 tear down.

The testing of the B1B could be done on the runway. The object was to find which module failed, and replace that module. The failed module would go to a repair depot to be diagnosed and fixed.

Robert Sacchi (author) on March 24, 2018:

Thank you for the information. The F-117, like almost every other aircraft, had its detractors. The pilots who flew it simply gave it the nickname, "The Black Jet". General Norman Schwarzkopf initially didn't think much of the F-117 for the operation. That was until the F-117 flew combat sorties. Then he realized their value. He also liked the Luke Skywalker videos from the F-117.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 23, 2018:


I stand corrected, apparently it was the F117 used in Desert storm, they had the nickname 'the wobbly goblin' they were so hard to fly that you couldn't fly it manually.

Sorry for the confusion.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 23, 2018:


Great hub here, just one little addition (that the US military will deny)

The B1B did take part in operation Desert storm, they were officially not stationed outside the USA at the time, but six were secretly deployed to Britain and used to 'Take down' the Iraqi command and control centre in Baghdad.

Officially its denied, but friends of mine watched the planes take off, and still enjoy the idea that they saw six planes that officially didn't exist!

Robert Sacchi (author) on February 22, 2018:

Fortunately it's a big sky. Some airports use loud noise to scare off birds.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 22, 2018:

Knowing that it is amazing that more aircraft are not taken down by flying birds. Rather scary!

Robert Sacchi (author) on February 20, 2018:

Much study has gone into doing just that. Sometimes it's not technically possible. A decade of two before the B-1 the technology wasn't there to give complete protection against a 4# bird. I remember seeing a film clip where they did an experiment by firing a bird carcass at a test aircraft canopy. The test wasn't successful.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 20, 2018:

Knowing that an aircraft is vulnerable to bird strikes but fatally only in certain areas...I would think that manufacturers of such airplanes would somehow harden those areas to protect them. Considering the millions of dollars spent perhaps a few more to protect the planes would make sense.

Robert Sacchi (author) on February 19, 2018:

Surviving bird strikes has been a problem. In the case of the B-1 crash I spoke to a B-1 pilot who said there were 3 spots on the aircraft that bird could have hit that could have downed a B-1. It's a matter of the bird hitting just the wrong place.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 19, 2018:

The price tags of aircraft like the B-1 Bomber are mind boggling! I would think that all aircraft should be designed to withstand bird impacts larger than 4 pounds and still be able to fly. There are many birds up there in the air. I just looked up the weight of geese. An average goose weighs between 3 to 13 pounds.

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