Outside of playing on an Xbox in my family room, I had never piloted an airplane. And the B-1 is no ordinary plane, given its $300 million price tag and its unparalleled capabilities: Supersonic speed and a payload of 24 two-thousand-lb guided weapons in its three separate bomb bays. The bomber dropped a third of the powerful JDAMs used in the most recent Gulf War even though it flew only about one percent of the sorties. Quite a machine for my maiden flight.
A little background is in order. When not wearing a flightsuit, I draw information graphics for TIME. In April, I created an illustration that showed how a B-1 dropped four satellite-guided bombs in Baghdad's Mansur District that targeted Saddam Hussein and at least one of his sons. The graphic prompted an e-mail from Kevin Cox, a computer technician who works on the B1s at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, S.D., The crew enjoyed the graphic and asked for some reprints. I said yes. Then I asked Kevin if he could arrange for me to hitch a ride. To my surprise, the folks at Ellsworth said maybe.
I persuaded my wife to spend our summer vacation in beachless South Dakota, and arrived at the base on a rainy June morning. There was no guarantee at the time that I would get a ride. I was offered a session in the B1 flight simulator and an opportunity to interview the pilots involved in the Mansur mission. One of the pilots, Capt. Chris Wachter, accompanied me in the simulator, an exact replica of a B1 cockpit. Hydraulic lifts under our seats shook our bodies as we "soared" through a series of acrobatic maneuvers through virtual skies. It wasn't until after the 30-minute roller coaster ride and discussions with several officials at the base that I was told that my flight had been approved.
My training continued the next day with a crash course on, well, crashing. Capt. Dan Bush went over emergency escape procedures, including the Aces II ejection seat that, if activated, would give me a 95 percent chance of escaping alive. The seat thrusts the body from the plane at an unfathomable 150 Gs per second, compressing the spine so much that a person sometimes comes out a half-inch shorter. Better to be 6-foot-1 1/2 than dead, I reasoned. The seat also packs a parachute, set to open below 14,000 feet. Noting that Pike's Peak is approximately that height, I asked what would happen if I ejected there. "They'd be cleaning you up with a spoon," I was told. Hence, I was nervous. My prospective crewmates, however, were reassuring. Said one: "At least you won't be flying at night. In bad weather. With people trying to kill you."
The day of the flight began at 7 a.m. with a physical followed by a mission briefing. I met my crewmates, each of whom had a call sign, or nickname: Lt. Col. Dick "Blood" Banks, Capt. Kevin "Sidler" Kohl and Capt. Mike "Chanel" Chavannes. I too had a call sign, buried under a stream of acronyms and numbers that were scrawled on a whiteboard: TMD. Time Magazine Dude. I would have preferred something a bit more like "Maverick," but TMD worked for me. My duties were also noted on the whiteboard: "Rage in a killing machine." Now that was more like it.
Blood addressed the crew using a language I didn't quite follow, filled with obligatory military words like "joker" and "bingo" and phrases like "fence in" and "fence out." I nodded as if I understood. Then he said something I actually did understand: that I would be flying the BONE (B-One) in an MOA (military operation area) over several thousand desolate square miles of Wyoming known as Powder River (surprisingly, no acronym.) I again nodded confidently, but deep down inside, I was STD (scared to death.)
I tried to make conversation with my new crewmates as we taxied in a small truck to the waiting B-1. I explained my job at TIME, and talked about the challenge of diagramming the World Trade Center attack. I mentioned that the task required successive all-nighters. Blood seemed unimpressed. "Yeah, well our jobs got a bit more difficult after 9/11 also," he said. I figured that was a good time to stop whining about how difficult it is to be an artist.
The B-1 holds four people; my initial seat was in the second row of the cockpit, normally occupied by the defensive systems operator. I watched Chanel make several unsuccessful attempts to load the mission data from a DTUC (data transfer unit cartridge), which looks like a black brick with a handle. Surprisingly, the cartridge is made from 1960s technology, holding only 512 kilobytes of data, less than a floppy disk. But inside was all of the data needed to launch state-of-the-art precision weapons and to skim the earth's surface from as low as 200 feet at Mach speed.
When the data was finally uploaded, I strapped on my helmet and oxygen mask and slid into the co-pilot's seat in the front row. Blood was on my right, and Chanel and Sidler occupied the rear seats. As the engines roared, I realized I had forgotten a significant piece of gear: my barf bag. I clicked on my microphone and warned the crew of my oversight. Blood gestured toward my gloves. "If you really need it, you've got a barf bag on each hand."
One by one the plane's four afterburners ignited, as indicated by four green lights on the plane's dashboard. Blood hit the throttles and we whizzed down the runway. To make the BONE more aerodynamic and thus faster, Blood reached to his right and pulled back on a lever which retracted the wings to a desired angle. It reminded me of the way I set the height of the blades on my lawnmower. We accelerated to roughly 500 m.p.h. at an altitude of 10,000 ft. and moments later we were over Powder River. That's when he took his hand off the controls and announced, "Ok, it's your airplane."
I took the stick and did my best to keep the altitude level, figuring as long as we weren't diving we were probably ok. He then instructed me to bring it up to 15,500 ft. I pulled back the stick, felt the aircraft immediately respond and watched the altimeter climb to 16,500 before I could level it off. Likewise, when he told me to bring it down to 10,500 ft, I failed again and ended up around 10,000.
Blood then took the stick, punched it forward and dove us to 1,000 ft, where he activated the TF (terrain-following) radar program. He instructed me to take control again, but to only gently guide the aircraft's direction and to "let the plane fly itself." True to its name, the program maintained a constant altitude, rising when we crossed mountains and dipping when we were over valleys. It was easy to imagine the value of such technology when flying low over a foreign land during conditions of poor visibility.
With me still at the controls, we whipped around Powder River a few more times and made a fake bombing run on an imaginary column of Iraqi T-72 tanks. Our 1 hour, 13 min. mission completed, Blood resumed control of the aircraft and brought us back to Ellsworth. The landing was smooth, and, I'm proud to report, my gloves were clean.