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Strategic Air & Space Museum refurbishes a B-1A strategic bomber.

In July 2003, Nebraska’s Strategic Air & Space Museum received the first of 17 truckloads containing a mammoth reconstruction project: a North American Rockwell B-1A. One of two surviving Lancer strategic bombers, the aircraft is on long-term loan from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, which had displayed it since 1986.

This particular aircraft is the last of an original quartet of prototypes. Much of its interior equipment, including cockpit instruments, had already been transferred to a production B model before it came to Dayton. The plane had served primarily as an avionics test-bed, and in that role had been extensively modified both inside and out. While on active duty, it was identifiable because of a long spine on the fuselage that contained the wave guide for a Kuras-Alterman “Cross-eye” electronic countermeasures system. That had been removed before the B-1 arrived in Ashland, home to the Strategic Air & Space Museum.

This Lancer has open over-wing fairings located at the point where the wings sweep back and pivot into the fuselage (on production B-1B models this area is closed). Another unusual feature of this aircraft is its rounded “ogival” radome and tail cone; the other A models had pointed nose and tail cones, while the first two produced were also fitted with a 6-foot-11 instrumentation boom.

The disassembled B-1 was shipped to Nebraska over a period of more than three months. Its 143-foot fuselage had to be transported in three sections. The center section—which included the wing root structure and the pivot mechanism that supported the B-1’s revolutionary swing-wing design—weighed more than 80,000 pounds and was the last piece to reach its new home. It attracted considerable media attention in the course of its trip across five states.

“The main part [fuselage center section] created a very wide load that took up two lanes at a time,” noted museum Deputy Director Steve Prall. During that slow journey, the truckers had to be especially mindful of traffic restrictions that varied from state to state. Some jurisdictions would allow the load to be moved on their interstate highway system only during daylight hours, while others allowed travel only on primary roads. One state restricted travel to between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m.

Mark Hamilton, manager of the museum’s restoration facility, and his team of volunteers began cleaning the Lancer’s components, as well as sanding and removing the many layers of paint that had been applied over the years. The aircraft’s exterior was in relatively good condition except for the paint. By mid-October all the parts had arrived, and a crew from World Wide Aircraft Recovery began the month-and-a-half-long job of reassembling the bomber on the tarmac just outside the museum’s restoration hangar.

In December 2003, with a Nebraska winter looming, the nearly assembled B-1 was rolled inside the museum’s restoration hangar, where the team could continue its work. The mammoth aircraft barely fit inside the giant restoration facility. “It literally went door-to-door in the hangar,” Hamilton recalled. The radome had to be left off until the aircraft was moved to the display area, in the facility’s Hangar B.

While the sleek bomber was being reassembled, museum officials decided the B-1 would be more visually appealing if its 137-foot extended wings were posed in their fully swept position. Hamilton pointed out that “B-1s were never meant to have their wings swept on the ground,” since with the wings swept, the center of gravity shifts aft on the airframe, and the tail would sit on the ground. To counteract that problem, 3,000 pounds of lead weight was placed in the cockpit, 1,000 pounds of ballast was loaded into the forward bomb bay and an additional 1,200 pounds was added to the nose-wheel well area.

With the four original General Electric YF101-GE-100 turbofan engines removed from the underwing nacelles, restorers had to construct special hangers to attach the “burner cans.” Each of these 800-pound steel afterburner nozzles added additional weight to the rear portion of the fuselage. This meant even more weight had to be added to the nose and cockpit.

Over the next 10 months, Hamilton’s crew worked to remove the four coats of paint that covered the aircraft. According to Prall, when the B-1 arrived in Dayton in 1986 it was painted in desert camouflage colors—tan, brown and green. Workers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base changed the aircraft back to its original overall white, denoting that it was an experimental aircraft. Large black and white circular outlines were added to the fuselage and engine nacelles, to serve as reference points for photo interpretation during test missions.

The B-1 program began in 1965, when the Department of Defense was seeking a replacement for the rejected North American XB-70 Valkyrie and the aging Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. In 1969 a request for proposal went to Boeing, General Dynamics and Rockwell. Rockwell’s design was submitted the following year. General Electric came on board shortly thereafter with a contract to develop the engines for the new aircraft.

Rockwell’s original contract called for five flying prototypes, two structural airframes and 40 engines. A total of 244 aircraft were ultimately delivered to the Air Force, with final production ending in 1981. The first of five preproduction B-1A airframes (only four were actually delivered) rolled out of the factory in Palmdale, Calif., on October 26, 1974, and the Lancer made its initial flight two months later.

Like the General Dynamics F-111 medium fighter-bomber, which first flew three years earlier on December 21, 1964, the B-1A utilized variable-geometry wings. When extended forward for low-speed flight, takeoffs and landings (15 to 20 degrees sweep) the wings measured 136.7 feet. Fully swept back (67.5 degrees) for high speed, the wing was reduced to a length of 78 feet.

The first three B-1s were fitted with a crew escape capsule that in an emergency could be jettisoned from the main portion of the fuselage and parachuted to safety. The capsules were fitted with directional control rocket motors and stabilizing “ears” that opened on the port and starboard sides of the fuselage. The fourth B-1A was equipped with crew ejection seats similar to those now installed on B-1Bs.

All the B-1s had a crew of four: aircraft commander, pilot, defensive systems officer and offensive systems officer. The B-1A was designed to carry 75,000 pounds of bombs in three internal bomb bays. Another 40,000 pounds of weapons could be carried externally. Twenty-four cruise missiles, on rotary launchers, could be substituted for the bombload. The aircraft was also equipped to deliver nuclear weapons. The B-1 was initially intended for high-altitude missions at Mach 2-plus as well as low-level penetration at high subsonic speeds coupled with supersonic dash capabilities. In essence, the Lancer was meant to be a multirole bomber with the speed and agility of the F-111 and the bombload capacity and range of the B-52.

Testing of the first three prototypes continued throughout 1975 and 1976, but on June 30, 1977, President Jimmy Carter canceled the B-1 program due to escalating cost overruns. His action eliminated the order for the 244 production aircraft but allowed the testing and development portions of the program to continue. The aircraft now in Nebraska, 76-0174, was in production before Carter’s order was issued, so work continued on the airframe—albeit at a much slower pace. Four years later, on February 14, 1979, 76-0174 made its first flight. Under President Ronald Reagan, Congress appropriated funding in 1981 for a new multirole strategic bomber that became the B-1B.

After more than 10 months of restoration, the museum’s B-1A was ready to receive the three-tone “strategic scheme” of dark gunship gray and dark green upper surfaces and medium gunship gray undersides. As the project moved toward completion, interest grew among visitors and members, and the museum inaugurated a members’ tour on alternate months. “This gave us a chance to show how Mark and his crew were progressing in the restoration,” Prall said. The restoration was completed in October 2004. Now that all the hard work is done, Prall added, “The finished product is an awesome looking airplane!”


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.