On February 23, 2008, the United States Air Force suffered its most costly accident in its history when one of its most expensive planes ever crashed. The Spirit of Kansas (tail number 89-127), a Northrop B-2 Spirit bomber, crashed on the runway shortly after takeoff from Andersen Air Force Base (AFB) in Guam.
The aircraft had been operated by the 393rd Bomb Squadron of the 509th Bomb Wing out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. It was one of four B-2s preparing to return to Whiteman following a deployment that began on Oct. 5, 2007, as part of a continuous U.S. bomber presence in the western Pacific. Spirit of Kansas, which had logged 5,100 flight hours, was under the command of Major Ryan Link and co-piloted by Captain Justice Grieve.
The two officers attempted to control the bomber when one of its wingtips made contact with the ground but were unable to do so. Both Link and Grieve were able to successfully eject and survived the crash. However, the aircraft was destroyed, and the cost of the total loss of the B-2 was estimated to be $1.4 billion.
Three other B-2 bombers remained at Guam during the investigation that followed the crash. The investigation found after "heavy, lashing rains," moisture entered a skin-flush air-data sensor, which is used to calculate numerous factors including airspeed and altitude. The moisture on the sensor caused the jet to receive inaccurate data. In addition, three pressure transducers had also been improperly calibrated by the maintenance crew due to condensation inside the devices. As a result, the flight-control computers calculated inaccurate aircraft angle of attack and airspeed.
Incorrect airspeed data on cockpit displays led to the aircraft rotating at twelve knots slower than indicated. When the B-2’s wheels lifted from the runway, the flight control system erroneously sensed a negative angle of attack, which then caused the computers to inject a sudden, 1.6‑g, uncommanded 30-degree pitch-up maneuver. The combination of slow lift-off speed and the extreme angle of attack, with attendant drag, resulted in an unrecoverable stall, yaw, and descent. While the pilots attempted to correct the problem, they were unable to regain control and ejected. The B-2 hit the ground, tumbled, and burned after its fuel ignited.
Spirit of Kansas was the first crash involving a B-2, and the only one to date to see a total loss of the aircraft. A second B-2, Spirit of Washington, was badly damaged in 2010, also in Guam. That aircraft was partially repaired, flown back to the continental United States, and then underwent a four-year restoration before returning to service.
In September 2021, another B-2 made an emergency landing at its home base in Missouri. During the landing, the Spirit skidded onto the grass and came to rest on its left side. That investigation is still ongoing – and the Air Force Global Strike Command has still not determined whether the jet would be repaired and returned to service, but even if it not, its parts could still likely be used to keep other B-2s flying.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.