What’s in a number: How the Air Force catalogs its B-2 Spirit pilots

  • Published
  • By Chelsea Ecklebe
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

The B-2 Spirit cadre of highly skilled pilots are a part of an exclusive community, which is highlighted by the way the Air Force catalogs these impressive men and women in the history books. 

Every B-2 pilot goes through Initial Qualification Training at Whiteman Air Force Base to learn how to fly the most technologically-advanced strategic bomber in the world. Once the IQT students have gone through hundreds of hours of academics and training in the B-2 simulators, they are finally able to put their skills to the test and take-off for their first flight. Following their first flight, each pilot receives a Spirit Number, which cements their place in history.

Former B-2 pilot and Spirit Number 78, Frank Cavuoti, explains a Spirit Number is a sequential number that is assigned only to a person who has flown in the B-2 Spirit. This tradition of using a numbering system was preceded by the first stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk, which used the Bandit Number.

“Each program realized there would be a very limited number of assigned pilots and sensed a need to catalogue that history and legacy,” said Cavuoti, now Detachment 5, 29 Training Systems Squadron, B-2 senior program analyst. “These are one-of-a-kind numbers, like a numerical fingerprint that are unique and will only be assigned once and never reused.”

After 33 years, there are only 550 B-2 pilots who have been assigned a Spirit Number. The tradition began on July 17, 1989, when two B-2 test pilots, Bruce Hinds, Spirit Number 1, and Col. Rick Couch, Spirit Number 2, piloted the first B-2 flight from Plant 42 in Palmdale, CA to Edwards Air Force Base.

Spirit Numbers are not only assigned to pilots, however. Others who are given the rare opportunity to fly in the B-2 Spirit are also awarded their own number. This catalog of numbers features an impressive line-up, including cabinet-level secretaries, senior military leaders, members of Congress, as well as award-winning enlisted military members.

Tech. Sgt. Elizabeth Lambert, 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, received an incentive flight in the B-2 Spirit and Spirit Number 760 after being awarded the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Thomas N. Barnes Award and 509th Bomb Wing Crew Chief of the Year.

“It’s an honor to be one of the few, still less than 800 people, to receive a Spirit Number,” said Tech. Sgt. Lambert. “This is a once in a life time opportunity and I love that I get to be a part of history. Being the first female enlisted crew chief to fly in the B-2 was incredible.”

Throughout history, there have been many unique ways pilots distinguish themselves, from unit patches to call signs; however, the Spirit Number brings a whole new level of connection to something bigger.

“To a B-2 pilot, the Spirit Number represents a shared sense of connection to a very special program and signifies the spirit, pride, tradition, heritage and esprit de corps shared among the very few fellow B-2 Spirit pilots,” said Cavuoti. “They all know the awesome responsibility and privilege of flying a national asset of unspeakable power and being ready anytime, anywhere. They all know they are not just pilots who fly the B-2 … but that they are B-2 Pilots.”