Tactical Aviation

The most expensive plane crash in history cost the Air Force $1.4 billion

most expensive plane crash
The crashed Spirit of Kansas.

The United States maintains a continuous bomber presence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region to enhance security among its regional allies and maintain an effective deterrent among its enemies. The continuous bomber presence deploys aircraft from all across the United States, including the normally reliable (and expensive) B-2 Spirit, America’s stealth bomber

The only time a B-2 Bomber has ever crashed, it was during this continuous mission. It crashed shortly after takeoff from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, and resulted in the entire continuous bomber operation being temporarily halted. The aircraft was a total loss, though the pilots survived, and remains the most expensive airplane crash ever. 

It might come as a surprise to many that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter isn’t the most expensive airplane in the world, or even in the U.S. arsenal. The F-35 is actually just the third most expensive airplane in the world, and it’s a good thing, too, because each of the three F-35 crashes would have been competing for the top spot on the list of most expensive aircraft crashes. 

When Britain’s Royal Air Force lost an F-35 in the Mediterranean Sea in 2021, it cost the RAF $120 million. A Marine Corps F-35B that crashed in South Carolina in 2018 cost $115 million. A Navy F-35C that fell into the South China Sea in 2022 was worth more than $100 million. For comparison, the most expensive non-F-35 crash from a foreign power was the December 2021 downing of a Russian SU-57 stealth fighter. 

With this kind of money at stake, it’s easy to see why the commander of a Bomb Wing might ground an entire operation until the Air Force could determine why a B-2 Spirit crashed on takeoff to support that mission. 

most expensive plane crash b-2
Spirit of Kansas, the USAF Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit involved in the accident, seen on 19 July 1997.

On February 23, 2008, the B-2 Spirit known as “Spirit of Kansas” took off in support of the continuous bomber presence mission. It had already flown from its home base at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri to Guam, and flown the mission for four months. It was supposed to be headed back to Missouri soon. The plane itself had more than 5,000 flying hours under its belt. There was no reason to think it might crash on takeoff.

As it took off, the plane became unwieldy and, despite the best efforts of both pilots, the plane’s wingtips touched the ground. Both pilots were forced to eject before the plane was destroyed. Both were sent to the hospital, and one was released with no injuries. The other recovered after a short stay. The general in charge grounded all B-2 Spirit bombers supporting the continuous bomber mission. 

The crash cost the Air Force $1.4 billion ($1.95 billion in 2023). It was the first operational loss of a B-2 Spirit bomber and the most expensive airplane crash ever, even though only the plane itself was destroyed. 

The stealth bomber was first developed during the Cold War as a way to attack deep inside the Soviet Union without being seen. The bomber took so long to develop that by the time it was ready for production, the Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore. Instead of buying 132 bombers, Congress allowed for the purchase of just 21, ballooning the per unit cost of the plane to $737 million ($1.3 billion in 2023).

But that’s not the end. Retrofitting, adjustments, spare parts, software, and all the associated costs that go into producing a plane over that period of time meant an average total cost of $929 million each. It’s a good thing that the Spirit of Kansas is the only B-2 to ever crash – so far, its biggest bomb threat is to America’s pocketbook.