B2 Stealth Bomber, Others Threatened By Weather
It's the marquee aircraft of the United States military. Unlike any other plane in the world, the 21 B2 stealth bombers all hangared at Whiteman Air Force base help ensure global power for America.
"The B2 is a national asset," said Air Force Major Joseph DellaVedova. "It has a capability that is unparalleled in the world."
The sleek jet black design helps the B2 evade enemy radar detection.
"[Providing an] ability to fly unseen into high-value targets, and to kick down the door and take them out," he said.
It made its combat debut during "Operation Allied Force" in Kosovo a decade ago, flying sorties over Iraq and Afghanistan since then.
As one of only a few aircraft deemed a 'national asset,' intense measures are in place to protect the plane. Several rings of increasing security begin at the base's barbed wire. Security so sensitive, in fact, we couldn't show you places we visited during two trips to Whiteman. Yet, for all the existing security, there are still potentially crucial gaps when it comes to protecting the stealth.
First, consider the safeguards that have been developed. Many are impressive, including a mobile command post rolled out and put on display for us in a new Whiteman subdivision. At a cost of $600,000, it's fully-furnished with ability for constant satellite communications, radioed for communication with first responders and mounted with a powerful high-zoom camera.
"We can take video feeds from our cam-and-boom system and send it back to the emergency operations center," Captain Joseph Jones said. "We can send it back to headquarters, anybody that needs an extra eyes on us and can't come out the scene themselves."
Everyday life on post is centered on its service. Many of its men and women live on Whiteman Air Force Base, with finishing touches being put on a new suburban-like neighborhood on the base's fringe. The houses are equipped with all things you find in regular homes and more.
Like sturdy storm shelters.
"It's made out of steel. It's bolted to the floor," said Jones.
The shelters have three deadbolt locks ensuring they would remain shut in a tornadic event. It is a valuable precaution when you consider just how close this base came to being hit by massive tornadoes on March 12, 2006.
As a barrage of tornados hit the state, during the station's live coverage KOMU's Dave Schmidt iterated the danger from what would become a killer tornado that coursed a path just two miles north of Whiteman. The tornado that skirted the base two miles to the north destroyed 100 homes in and around Sedalia. It was part of the worst tornado outbreak in Missouri history, spawning more than 100 reported tornadoes. And the killer tornado that skirted Whiteman two miles to the north wasn't the only near miss. A second twister moved five miles to the south.
At Whiteman in March 2007, to gather a one-year anniversary story chronicling the 2006 events KOMU's August Skamenca stumbled across what would become a five-month investigation. During an interview about those storms, an off-camera public affairs officer described what would happen to the base's hangars from a direct tornado hit.
"Above 90, the skin would come off," he said. "They're not built to be tornado-proof."
KOMU News sent a formal request to base commanders to confirm that assessment. That request ended up at the headquarters of the Air Combat Command in Langley, Virginia.
Documents from that headquarters confirmed what KOMU had previously been told: Hangars used to house $46 billion dollars in aircraft aren't strong enough to withstand even the weakest of tornadoes. KOMU's request to interview Whiteman's commander, Brigadier General Gregory Biscone, was denied due to a scheduling conflict. Instead, Biscone delegated Major Joseph DellaVedova to speak on behalf of the base.
Here is a partial transcript of that interview:
Skamenca: "You know this is structural load data from the Department of Defense, provided by the Air Combat Command in Virginia, says 90 miles per hour [referring to the ratings for the base's hangars]. That's a weak F-1 tornado. You have five levels of tornadoes, that's just the bare minimum."
DellaVedova: "Have we ever had a tornado hit here?"
Skamenca: "You've had two hit close within the last year."
DellaVedova: "Statistically, it's a very, very small chance and we are prepared, we are ready and the B2 can always fly out of here."
But they didn't fly out March 12, 2006, with a killer tornado just a couple of miles away. As tornadoes skirted the base, the planes with their $46 billion dollar price tag sat in their hangars.
1st Lieutenant Craig Towlson, chief weather officer for the 509th Bomber Wing at Whiteman say they were aware of the impending weather days in advance.
"That day started for us actually on a Friday, the actual tornado did drop down on Sunday," Towlson said. "We informed our wing leadership on Friday that there was a strong potential for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. The wing did take action; they housed the B2s and other aircraft in their hangars and docks."
In hindsight, it was the right decision. Tornadoes missed the hangars and the planes.
But is a direct hit on the hangars the only threat to the planes? Joe Schaefer, director of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, the elite wing of the National Weather Service responsible for forecasting the worst of storms, has seen ample tornado damage in his roughly 40 years predicting weather for the U.S. government.
"With airplane hangars, the doors are so much bigger than on a typical house," Schaefer said. "You've got a big old airplane in, not just a car like in your garage. So, you have huge doors and these things are notoriously weak. So you get a piece of debris blowing in the wind, hits the door, knocks either the door off or knocks a big hole in the door that's just going to start blowing up the hanger. So they're really not that good of structures."
Defense Department documents show hangars at Whiteman and other Air Force Bases, some hit by tornadoes before, are susceptible to serious damage from weak tornadoes or strong straight-line winds.
Skamenca: "If those hangars took 90 mile-per-hour winds what would happen?"
[Five seconds of silence]
"What's the structural integrity of those hangars? That's not a hypothetical."
[Two seconds of silence]
DellaVedova: "I'm not going to get into how much those hangars can take. What I will tell you is we built strong structures, strong structures here."
Skamenca: "How strong?"
DellaVedova: "They're strong."
[Two seconds of silence]
Skamenca: "What's that mean?"
An Air Force weather forecaster and Air Force maintenance superintendent, both entrusted with caring for the B2s at Whiteman, know what it means.
"If you get the shear and turning of a tornado, not much can protect the assets inside those hangars," said 1st Lt. Towlson.
Their value, both monetarily and militarily, is unmistakable to observers and those entrusted with their care.
"These are irreplaceable," said Staff Master Sergeant Steve Ramage. "They made 21 of them. They're not going to make any more. To make more, they'd have to rebuild factories or find other factories; make the tools all over again. They'd be gone forever. You would not replace these aircraft."
On two occasions during our nearly hour-long interview with Major DellaVedova, he said Whiteman was quote "fortunate" that it had not ever been hit. But fortune might not be something the American public wants to bet on.
Whiteman Isn't Alone
Department of Defense documents show that hangars throughout Tornado Alley, all with the same uniform standards, rated as being able to withstand very weak tornadoes - only 90 mph winds.
Some Air Force bases had been hit by tornadoes before, in one case four times, and the hangars there still have not been up-armored.
In the next installment of the "46 Billion Dollar Gamble" Target 8 investigators take you to Oklahoma City and Tinker Air Force Base.