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US Air Force bids farewell to first of 17 B-1B bombers that will retire this year

First retired B-1B Lancer
A B-1B Lancer is saluted prior to its final launch from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Feb. 17, 2021. Photo: US Air Force

The US Air Force’s plan to retire 17 of its B-1B Lancer bombers officially kicked off on February 17 as the first aircraft launched from Ellsworth Air Force Base for the last time before being divested.

All 17 Bones (as the supersonic heavy bomber is often referred to), of the 60 aircraft still in service, are to be retired this year.

The service says that four of the 17 airframes will be required to remain in a reclaimable condition that is consistent with Type 2000 recallable storage.

It has been further said that the action would not affect the service’s lethality or any associated maintenance manpower, and will instead allow officials to focus maintenance and depot-level manpower on the remaining aircraft. With fewer aircraft in the B-1 fleet, maintainers will be able to give more time and attention to each aircraft.

“Beginning to retire legacy bombers, to make way for the B-21 Raider, is something we have been working toward for some time,” said Gen. Tim Ray, Air Force Global Strike Command commander.

“Due to the wear and tear placed on the B-1 fleet over the past two decades, maintaining these bombers would cost 10s of millions of dollars per aircraft to get back to status quo. And that’s just to fix the problems we know about. We’re just accelerating planned retirements.”

The first of 17 B-1B Lancers to retire this year takes off from Ellsworth Air Force Base. Photo: US Air Force

Continuous combat operations over the last 20 years have taken a toll on the airframe’s structure. Currently, a small portion of the B-1Bs are in a state that will require approximately ten to thirty million dollars per aircraft to get back to a status quo fleet in the short term until the B-21 comes online.

“Retiring aircraft with the least amount of usable life allows us to prioritize the health of the fleet and crew training,” Ray said. “Our ability to balance these priorities will make us more capable and lethal overall.”

The Lancer is one of three strategic bombers flown by the US Air Force, alongside the B-2 Spirit and the B-52 Stratofortress. The B-1B first flight took place in 1974, while the first airframe entered service in 1986. A total of 100 B-1Bs were delivered to the air force.