Last Flight of the Watchman
Full imagery from this article can be found here: https://imagery.redhomeaviation.com/gallery/Watchman
As aircraft near their planned life expectancy, we expect to see them retired from service to the country, but seeing them for the last time is always difficult to take in. The B-1B fleet has already seen dozens of aircraft retired to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (the Boneyard) of Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ. In 2021, 17 more Lancers will be divested from the inventory to focus on the health on the rest of the fleet, as well as to begin making room for the soon-to-arrive B-21 Raider. Aircraft with the least amount of usable airframe life were chosen as those that would be divested.
The roots of the Rockwell B-1 Lancer grew from the Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft program of 1963, which required a new bomber to have high-speed and high-altitude capabilities, similar to the F-111. This program was canceled in 1968 in favor of upgrading the B-52 fleet and adding nearly 300 FB-111s. AMSA was rescued and restarted upon Richard Nixon assuming the office of the President of the United States. In April 1969 the program was named the B-1A, but would be canceled in June 1977 by President Carter, in favor of ICBMs, SLBMs, and modernization of the B-52 fleet with air launched cruise missiles.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, the Advanced Technology Bomber program, which would become the B-2A Spirit, was well underway. It was believed by defense officials that the B-1 would be in operation before the ATB, but the longevity of the aircraft would be less than one decade and would be obsolete after the introduction of the B-2. In January 1982, the U.S. Air Force awarded two contract to Rockwell International for the development and production of 100 B-1 aircraft. First delivered in 1985, the aircraft would go on to participate in their first combat sorties in support of Operation Desert Fox in 1998. They would be used in Operation Allied Force, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Inherent Resolve.
By 2001, 93 of the original 100 aircraft remained in service and the Pentagon sought to remove one-third of the fleet into storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, despite objections from the Air National Guard and members of Congress. In 2003, 33 bombers were retired to the Boneyard, which was accompanied by the inactivation of the two bomb wings from the Air National Guard. With 60 Lancers in the fleet, the Defense Appropriations bill of 2004 called for seven of the aircraft to be returned to active servicing, bringing the total to 67 aircraft.
In December 2019, the Air Force Times reported that only six of the 62 bombers in the fleet at the time were fully mission capable. The fleet had suffered a series of groundings, including one stemming from a failed ejection sequence in 2018 where a crimped cable kept a crew member from being able to eject. Luckily, the ejection sequence for the remaining crew was canceled and the aircraft landed safely at Midland International Air and Space Port in Midland, TX. That aircraft, 86-0109 never would fly again after being ferried to Tinker Air Force Base, OK.
Having been chosen for her low airframe life remaining, aircraft 86-0101 was prepped for her final flight before retirement on the morning of 19 April 2021. Named the “Watchman”, the aircraft would be flown from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess AFB, TX to the home of B-1B depot at Tinker AFB, OK. By 9:30 am, the aircraft began taxiing to the active runway to begin her departure for the last time from Dyess. At 11:20 am local time, the radio crackled to life with “Tinker tower, DARK 1-1, 5 miles from the localizer for the overhead runway 18.”
She was here!
Within one minute, the aircraft arrived in thunderous fashion in the overhead at 3,500 feet, banking left at the departure end and beginning her series of options on the runway. In what could be described as a victory lap, the “Watchman” arrived with her wings spread for a beautiful slow pass with a cloudless blue sky, followed by the sounds of heaven opening as she pushed fuel through the augmenters to relight the four powerful afterburners.
Her gear retracted and she forced her way back into the skies for another pass. After several more beautiful passes, 86-0101 lowered her gear for the final time and came full stop on runway 18 at Tinker AFB. The crew taxied her to Air Force Materiel Command ramp and shut down her engines for the final time.
She will not rest in the desert, but will continue to contribute to the health of the remaining B-1B fleet. She will be disassembled at Tinker with some of her parts being used for depot maintenance to keep the rest of the fleet in the air. Her structure will be put on trucks and shipped to Wichita, Kansas, where she will be used as a structures prototyping evaluator with the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University. New funding was provided to NIAR in November 2020 to develop technologies that create a “digital twin” where aircraft can be digitally imaged and parts created and tested digitally before creating physical parts for the active fleet. NIAR already owns one partial B-1B delivered from the 309th AMARG in mid-2020.
The lessons learned at NIAR will enable digital prototyping for all aircraft in the fleet, studying the effects of advanced composites in the digital environment. These studies will make the build of new parts not only more efficient, but will increase safety by understanding materials stress and mitigation of stress points before ever being built in the physical world. The “Watchman” is set to be that piece from the past that saves aircraft and aircrew in the future.
Thank you Dyess AFB, Air Force Materiel Command, and Air Force Global Strike Command for the information about this aircraft!