Last July, Rose and I celebrated 10 wonderful years of marriage by spending twelve days together traveling across the country taking in the sites (and shooting A LOT of pictures). Our first stop on that trip was in Missouri for a weekend of visiting some dear friends and spending time with the wonderful men and women of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base.
There are a number of really amazing machines that call Whiteman AFB home; however, her most famous residents are the some of the crown jewels of the US strategic arsenal - the B2 Spirit Stealth Bombers.
Developed as a cornerstone of our nuclear arsenal during the cold war, the Spirits can slip past enemy radar to deliver their lethal payloads with pinpoint accuracy. If you talk to the folks in the squadron they will tell you that their first mission is deterrence, but when the bad guys don't cooperate, the B-2's deliver "Warheads on Foreheads, at the time and place of our choosing."
Thanks to my hosts on base, not only did we get to see and spend time with these beautiful birds, but arrangements were made to get me extraordinarily coveted photographer's credentials for the flight line. To put this in perspective, cameras on the flight line are normally met by MPs toting sub-machine guns... so this was something special! (For what it's worth, I know this fact about the MPs with sub-machine guns, because when I first started shooting photos, we were met by, wait for it, MPs with sub-machine guns. However, once they saw our paperwork and confirmed that it checked out, they were very friendly)
We spent the first day visiting the flight line and meeting some of the crews that take care of the Spirits. Each B-2 sits in it's own hangar, and when you see the meticulous care and treatment these $2 billion dollar aircraft receive, you understand why their keepers develop an emotional attachment to the aircraft. Very quickly you find yourself personifying them and as they sit in their hangars waiting to be called upon. They seem to silently breathe, daring the bad-guys to pick a fight.
The ground crews that work the planes operate meticulously choreographed movements to prep and maintain the aircraft. We sat back to watch one of these maneuvers and were extremely impressed with how each person knew exactly where they needed to be, and when.
The Saturday morning we were there, I woke up to an extra special treat, the "Spirit of Pennsylvania" (each Spirit has it's own name) has been called into service. We rushed out to the flight line where I got to meet her pilot and co-pilot and hang out with them for a few minutes while the ground crew performed initial readiness checks. Then we sat back as she taxied out of her hangar and headed out to the runway.
Leaning out the passenger window of my buddy's truck, I snapped this shot as she turned toward us. (For the aircraft lovers in the crowd, click on the photo to enlarge so you can see the squadron of another of my favorites, A-10 Warthogs, under the canopies in the background!!)
At this point, she's going to pass us on the right, when suddenly the aircraft stops. I took the opportunity to keep shooting beautiful profile shots out my window while we listened on the radio for news of some kind of mechanical issue. None came.
After shooting for about 20-30 seconds, I pulled my camera back into the truck - at which point I saw two big thumbs up from the cockpit. They had been posing her for me!! Her engines roared back to life and she continued out to the runway.
Now we raced (within the limits of the base speed limit of course) out to the fence between the hangars and the flight line - the closest any outsider like myself can get - to catch her take off.
I will tell you now, the picture does this little justice. The Spirit slices into the air in a slow and graceful climb, unlike any aircraft I've seen. It's hard to describe, it's just different.
She takes to the sky and within a minute, her thin, tail-less cross section disappears into the clouds.
Thinking the day pretty much can't get any better, we head back to the hangars where we meet up with three young airmen who are buttoning up the "Spirit of South Carolina" for the day. When we approach, they snap to for my buddy. (sidebar: getting a photographer out on to the flight line is no small feat, so if it isn't apparent at this point, I'll mention that at the time, he was one of the guys running the show...) He explained to them about the opportunity we had and they graciously helped set up an unencumbered photo shoot with the plane. (They even took time to clean up the equipment stored at the back of the hangar!)
Here are a couple of my favorites from that shoot.
And, by far, the coolest shot of the day - and it wasn't even taken by me. Make sure you click on the image to see it large so you can see the guy with the big, dumb grin in the cockpit!!
Many, many heartfelt thanks to our good friends and the men and women of the 509th who made our weekend in Missouri unforgettable. Thank you for your warm hospitality, and for all you do to keep America free. God Bless.