Thirty-seven years ago this month, the first USAF/Rockwell B-1A multi-role strategic bomber was rolled-out at the contractor’s USAF Plant 42 facility in Palmdale, California. The swing-wing, supersonic aircraft was intended to replace the venerable USAF/Boeing B-52 Stratofortress.
The USAF/Rockwell B-1A Lancer was the product of 1960’s-era Air Force studies calling for a supersonic-capable, low-level penetration bomber. North American Rockwell was awarded a contract to manufacture and test four (4) prototype airframes (S/N’s 74-0158, 74-0159, 74-0160 and 76-0174) in 1970. General Electric was selected as the powerplant provider.
The B-1A was designed for both Mach 2.3 flight at 50,000 feet and Mach 0.85 flight at sea level. The aircraft was able to satisfy these requirements by virtue of several design features. Formost among these was the aircraft’s ability to adjust its wing sweep in flight. Coupled with its sleek, aerodynamically-efficient fuselage, this gave the aircraft very low wave drag. Another key element were the type’s quartet of General Electric F-101 turbofan engines which generated a total of 120,000 lbs of afterburner thrust at sea level. Thrust performance was optimized through the use of variable-geometry air intakes.
The B-1A measured 150.2 feet in length and featured a wing span that could be varied in flight from 136.7 feet (15-deg sweep) to 78.2 feet (67.5-deg sweep). Gross take-off and empty weights were 395,000 lbs and 115,000 lbs, respectively. Unrefueld range was 5,300 nm. The aircraft was designed to carry 75,000 lbs of nuclear and/or conventional ordnance internally and up to 40,000 lbs externally. Operationally, the B-1A’s four-man crew would consist of aircraft commander, pilot, offensive systems officer and defensive systems officer.
The No. 1 B-1A (S/N 74-0158) was rolled out for the public on Saturday, 26 October 1974. About 10,000 people attended this event which took place at Rockwell’s facility on USAF Plant 42 property in Palmdale, California. The big, white, sleek aircraft was visually stunning and bore a majestic presence. The media covered the event in some detail.
The No. 1 B-1A took-off for the first time from USAF Plant 42 on Monday, 23 December 1974. The flight test aircrew included Charles Bock, Jr. (aircraft commander), Col. Emil (Ted) Sturmthal (pilot) and Richard Abrams (flight test engineer). The aircraft’s landing gear was not retracted and wing sweep was not varied during this initial flight test. These systems were operated on the type’s second flight test which occurred on Thursday, 23 January 1975.
Each of the B-1A prototypes served a distinct role in the aircraft’s flight test program. The No. 1 aircraft (74-0158) was the flying qualities evaluation testbed. It flew 79 times (405.3 hours) and was the first B-1A to hit Mach 1.5 (Oct 1975) as well as Mach 2 (Apr 1976). Aircraft No. 2 (S/N 74-0159) evaluated structural loading parameters, flew 60 times (282.5 hours), and achieved the highest Mach number of any B-1A aircraft (Mach 2.22 on Oct 1978). Aircraft No. 3 (S/N 74-0160) amassed 138 flights (829.4 hours) as an offensive and defensive systems testbed. Aircraft No. 4 (76-0174) had a similar role in that it tested essentially operational versions of the offensive and defensive systems. It flew 70 times (378 hours).
The B-1A program was cancelled by the Carter Administration in June of 1977. While it never attained operational status, the aircraft broke new ground in mutiple areas including aircraft design, aerodynamics, flight performance, and electronic warfare. Indeed, the multiple technological capabilities that it pioneered were ultimately exploited in the type’s direct heir; today’s USAF B-1B Lancer.