Tom Brady’s Super Bowl performance may have caught much of the nation’s attention during last night’s game, but for aviation nerds across the country, it was America’s three heavy-payload bombers that really stole the show.
It’s not at all uncommon for a big game to come with a cool flyover, but few can boast all three of America’s biggest and baddest bombers: A B-52H Stratofortress, a B-2 Spirit, and a B-1B Lancer. Each of these bombers was built to ferry tens of thousands of pounds of ordnance into combat, though each of these aircraft also represent different approaches to the very concept of a heavy bomber.
Which bombers were at the Super Bowl?
The B-52 Stratofortess, sometimes called the BUFF, is the elder statesman of the group–having been in service in one iteration or another since 1955. The forward-looking design of the mighty BUFF has allowed the aircraft to see repeated updates and upgrades and today, it’s even expected to stay in service past the retirement of its two newer counterparts. The B-52 can cruise at a decidedly quick 650 miles per hour while hauling a massive 70,000 pounds of ordnance into the fight.
The B-1B Lancer is decidedly newer than its B-52 counterpart, having entered service in 1986. While it can carry an even larger 75,000 pounds of ordnance (or about three school busses), the Bone (as it’s often called in service) really trades on its immense speed and fighter-like maneuverability. The B-1B Lancer is the only American bomber capable of flying at supersonic speeds, and thanks to its swing-wing design, it’s highly capable at both high and low speeds. It’s also the only one of these bombers that is no longer equipped to handle nuclear weapons.
And finally, we have the B-2 Spirit, or as it’s colloquially known, the stealth bomber. Technically speaking, the B-2 has the lightest payload capabilities of America’s heavy bombers, at a still impressive 40,000 pounds of ordnance. It’s also the slowest, with a top speed of just 628 miles per hour. However, there’s much more to the B-2 than those stats may suggest. The B-2 Spirit does not rely on massive payloads or powerful engines, but instead relies on stealth to operate in contested airspace. The U.S. Air Force sees stealth as the future of all military aviation, which is why, despite being slated for retirement, the B-2 will live on in elements of the forthcoming B-21 Raider, expected to be the most advanced bomber in history by the time it takes to the sky.
Do flyovers cost the taxpayer extra money?
In recent years, some have begun to question the value of flyovers such as these. The B-52 costs around $70,000 per hour to fly, the B-1B Lancer rings it at around $61,000, and the stealthy B-2 Spirit comes in at an astonishing $130,159 per hour to fly. With all three bombers in the air, that means the Super Bowl flyover cost a heart-stopping $261,000 per hour of flight time… making it pretty easy to appreciate that critical eye some maintain toward these pricey spectacles. However, despite the enormous costs associated with these flights… they aren’t actually a bad deal for the taxpayer.
American pilots are expected to spend a certain number of hours per month flying their aircraft. The reasoning behind that is pretty straight-forward: If you want to be capable of handling your jet in combat, you need to be really well acquainted with it. When aircraft like America’s heavy bombers participate in these flyovers, the flyovers themselves are integrated into the training schedule for the aircraft operators and maintainers. In other words, these jets aren’t spending any extra time in the air for the fanfare, nor are they spending any extra money.
“These missions are included in the annual operating budget of all branches of the military and they are used as training,” Mike Maus explained in 2011. At the time, he was serving as the deputy public affairs officer for the Naval Air Force’s Atlantic division.
“There was no additional money provided to us, Congress did not cut us a special check to do this flyover. This is considered a training mission whether they were to fly over the Super Bowl or not.”