“Once I was in the Air Force, my grandfather rolled into my life and influenced me to be a bomber pilot. In his day, my grandfather wanted to fly bombers, as they were taking the fight to the enemy, while pursuit aircraft were supporting that effort.”
For Price, the path was simpler. His father was an Army sergeant at Fort Carson, Colorado—close to the Air Force Academy—and all Genghis ever wanted to do was fly jets in combat. “It’s a sappy story, but it’s true,” he told me in a permanently eager, cheerful voice. “In high school, I played sports, joined all the clubs, ticked off all the activities that would just help me get into the academy.”
Genghis is a practicing Mormon who has served on religious missions to Latin America. Macho isn’t a word one would associate with him, or with Nuke. Instead, they exude a humble, introspective star quality. When I asked Nuke what attributes he and others look for when selecting members of the squadron, he said, “People who are team players to such an extent that they are self-starters, and who never want to be noticed or recognized.”
Nuke and Genghis are both of average height, with taut bodies—Price weighs only 126 pounds—and tense expressions. Their physiques match their quiet, precise personalities. The BUFF pilots I’d met were boisterous, hard-charging types; the B-2 pilots were older and calmer, with patience forged by—to use one example—29-hour hauls from Whiteman to Kosovo. These were continuous flights, with two aerial refuelings before the planes even entered the war zone. Nuke and Genghis didn’t have nine Gs available to them to avoid enemy fire. They depended on getting into and out of a battle space unseen.
No plane is invisible to radar. The trick is to reduce an aircraft’s “signature” so that you can “get iron past” a screen of overlapping surface-to-air missile sites. A B-2 is able to penetrate such screens because its boomerang shape gives it a severely reduced signature. It can drop as much ordnance as an entire squadron of fighter jets, directing bombs to their targets with GPS tail kits. All of this requires meticulous planning—the crux of a B-2’s mission.
I saw no nude pinups on the B-2 pilots’ walls or computer screens; rather, I saw photos of wives and kids, and I heard many references to community service and church. The pilots rarely cussed, unlike almost everyone else I’ve met in front-line military units. And they were less transient: A B-2 pilot can spend five years stationed at Whiteman, whereas other combat Air Force pilots bounce around the country and the world; until recently, regular Air Force pilots changed locations every two years. The B-2 pilots’ lifestyle helps keep families together.
Although the Air Force is run by aggressive fighter jocks, the B-2 men are, in a deeper sense, the ultimate Air Force pilots. A comparison with naval aviators helps illuminate their mind-set. Navy pilots have a reputation for being screaming-off-the-carrier-deck daredevils; alone in the ocean, without issues like noise restrictions to worry about, they have fewer rules. Naval aviation is about what you can do with an aircraft; Air Force aviation is about what you can’t do. Begotten by the U.S. military in 1947, the Air Force had its character molded by the Cold War’s Strategic Air Command, the core of our nuclear-delivery system. Because of their awesome strategic responsibilities, Air Force pilots are more by-the-book, more operationally conservative, than their Navy counterparts.
And B-2 pilots, in particular, have deeply internalized remnants of the Cold War sensibility. Being with them gave me a palpable sense of the terrifyingly complex struggles that may lie ahead. The squadron’s group commander of operations, Colonel Robert “Wheels” Wheeler, summed it up this way: “How do you take out a chemical-biological site of a rogue nation with surety, without inadvertently killing thousands of innocent civilians downwind? Well, the best way to avoid collateral damage would be to obliterate the site in place, with a weapon that either buries the site or burns it completely.”