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B-21 Flight Test aircraft build progresses while B-21 Combined Test Force takes shape

  • Published
  • By Elizabeth McErlean
  • DAF Rapid Capabilities Office

Gen. Timothy Ray, the Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and Air Forces Strategic-Air, U.S. Strategic Command, visited several organizations across the bomber test enterprise to receive first-hand updates on the progress of the B-21 program during a visit to Edwards Air Force Base and Plant 42, in California, May 5-6.

His first stop was to Edwards AFB, where he met with the 419th Flight Test Squadron, Global Power Bomber Combined Test Force. He was updated on the organization’s continued efforts to test upgrades to the B-2 Spirit in order to modernize the B-2 and integrate future weapons systems.

He then visited the 420th Flight Test Squadron, B-21 CTF. Ray was briefed on the construct for the Combined Test Force and the benefits it will bring to bear for the B-21 program. The B-21 CTF is an integrated team of test professionals from Northrop Grumman, 420th FLTS and Detachment 5, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center. The B-21 CTF provided a comprehensive update on the team’s readiness to support the B-21 program when it transitions into flight test. 

On the following day, Ray visited the Northrop Grumman facilities on Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, and saw the significant progress made on the build of the first flight test aircraft that will one day make its way to Edwards AFB for flight testing. Northrop Grumman personnel updated Ray on build progress and the value of building those test articles using the same production line, tooling and procedures that will manufacture the final production aircraft.

The workforce and managers of the production line are using these builds to learn and implement process improvements well before building the actual operational aircraft, decreasing cost and build schedule. The program’s stable requirements, and its strategy to incorporate mature technology, have played a large part in keeping the program schedule on track to deliver operational B-21 Raiders to the first main operating base in the mid-2020s. 

Major General Christopher Azzano, Commander of the Air Force Test Center, highlighted that members from across AFTC, industry and AFOTEC have been working toward this day program inception, and have continued to develop momentum since the Air Force first announced the reactivation of the historic test squadron in 2019

The transition to flight test, represented by first flight, will be monumental event that culminates numerous risk-reduction test efforts across AFTC, setting the stage to validate the B-21 design before operational units receive the aircraft. The B-21 CTF, the organization that will execute first flight, is positioned at the critical nexus of design verification and combat capability validation. The B-21 will take on greater prominence as it executes key tests validating aircraft performance and mission capability.

“This has been an extraordinary team effort from across the Air Force, including AFOTEC, AFGSC, Air Force Materiel Command and the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. Their collaboration has paved a smooth path for transition into the critical flight test phase of the program,” Azzano said. “The B-21 CTF is ready to put the nation’s most sophisticated stealth bomber through its paces to ensure it is ready to support our national security needs as the backbone of our conventional and nuclear mission sets.”  

“We were very pleased to host Gen Ray and discuss the future of our nation’s strategic capabilities.  The collaborative culture in Global Strike Command starts at the top and runs throughout his teams in the field.  We are honored to support these warriors in their vital mission,” Azzano added.

The B-21 flight test program will begin in earnest once the flight test aircraft build is complete, which will be driven by key maturity events, not arbitrary dates, according to the B-21 System Program Director and acquisition program lead, Col. Jason Voorheis.

“We are pleased with the progress being made in the build of these test articles. The Air Force and Northrop Grumman are working closely together to make smart choices on this program to support warfighter requirements and timelines,” Voorheis said.