Most expensive aviation disaster in history: B-2 Spirit accident worth 1.4 billion USD

Photo Credit: Federal Aviation Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 

Undoubtedly, the United States has put a large amount of money into its Air Force between improving aerial technology, funding production and, of course, dealing with the financial losses from crashes. There is one incident, in particular, that cost the service more than any other. Known as the 2008 Andersen Air Force Base B-2 Accident, it caused $1.4 billion in damages and saw the loss of a stealth bomber named Spirit of Kansas.

Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit

Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit 'Spirit of Kansas' taking off
Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit named Spirit of Kansas, July 1997.

The Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit first flew on July 17, 1989, and was introduced into service on January 1, 1997. It was created as part of the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) program to serve as both a heavy bomber and a stealth aircraft for gathering intelligence. This was exactly the type of aircraft intended for use during the Cold War, despite it not having a role in the conflict.

The B-2 was technologically advanced, which meant its production costs were incredibly high. Several problems also arose during the development process, which only drove up the price. The US Congress had intended to buy 132 of the bombers. However, only 21 were purchased (at a staggering $737 million per unit), due to the high price tag and the Cold War coming to an end.

One of the B-2s delivered was named Spirit of Kansas.

Spirit of Kansas

Firetrucks parked near the charred remains of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit 'Spirit of Kansas'
The remains of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit named Spirit of Kansas following the crash at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, February 2008. 

Spirit of Kansas was the 12th B-2 Spirit to be built, and joined the US Air Force on February 17, 1995. In 2008, the bomber was in service with the 393rd Bomb Squadron, 509th Bomb Wing, which operated out of Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. It’d flown with them for nearly seven months without issue, amassing 5,100 flight hours.

At the time of the crash, Spirit of Kansas had been in Guam for four months, as part of the continued presence of US bombers in the region.

On February 23, 2008, Maj. Ryan Link and Capt. Justin Grieve were supposed to return to Whiteman with “classified material.” Despite having had no prior issues, Spirit of Kansas became difficult to control upon takeoff, with one of its wingtips eventually touching the ground. Fortunately, both pilots were able to eject, and they survived the accident with only minimal hospitalization.

A $1.4 billion crash

First responders standing in front of two fire trucks
Emergency responders who aided in the response effort following the crash of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit named Spirit of Kansas at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, August 2008. 

Spirit of Kansas was another matter, as it was damaged beyond repair. Its wing had completely broken off upon catching the ground, causing the B-2 Spirit to tumble out of control. At it flipped, fuel spilt and caught fire, and very little was salvageable. However, reports say the classified material that was onboard the aircraft was safely returned to where it came from.

The estimated cost of the crash was $1.4 billion. However, the number is much higher when inflation is taken into account.

As Spirit of Kansas was the first B-2 to crash, it caused quite a stir. While an investigation was underway, the Air Force grounded the remaining 20 bombers. Officials determined the cause of the accident wasn’t pilot error – another staff member had forgotten to acrivate the air pressure heater. The resulting condensation in the air-data sensors, intensified by “heavy, lashing rains,” had made the control system issue a faulty command to pull away from the runway too early.

With the cause of the crash figured out, the B-2 fleet resumed flights on April 15, 2008. While there have been crashes in the years since, Spirit of Kansas remains the only one to have been damaged beyond repair. It remains the most expensive aircraft crash in history.

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