I’m standing under a B-1 Lancer. It’s one of my favorite aircraft and yet, despite touring aviation museums all over the world, I’ve never seen one in person. Not only that, this is a B-1A — which is even more rare. Capable of Mach 2.2, here it is in all its swoopy, swing-wing glory.
True, I had come to the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver to see this one craft, but this museum has many, many more. Out front on a pedestal is a B-52, seemingly taking flight. Next to the B-1 is an F-111, which itself is next to an F-14: a supersonic swing-wing trio.
I decide to have a look around. Here’s how it looks.
The idea behind the B-1 was to combine the B-52’s payload and the B-58’s speed into one aircraft so the US Air Force could retire both. In its final version, it ended up being slower than the latter and will be outlived by the former.
The version at the museum is the B-1A, one of four prototypes that first flew in the ’70s. Seeing it in person, I hadn’t quite fully grasped how big it is. At almost 150 feet long, it’s nearly as long as a B-52 or 767-200. It has three huge bomb bays and, of course, those iconic movable wings.
The B-1A wasn’t particularly successful. It came in well over budget and the role for which it was designed was quickly fulfilled by faster and cheaper cruise missiles. There was the then-new MiG-25, which could theoretically catch up to the B-1, making the bomber’s speed irrelevant (it had longer range at lower speeds). In 1977, President Jimmy Carter canceled the program.
Rockwell, the manufacturer, wasn’t deterred and continued testing. In 1982, the Reagan administration ordered a slightly different version of the B-1. The modified B-1B had a lower overall top speed (Mach 1.25), but higher subsonic top speed. It was recast as a low-altitude, high-speed bomber. It has succeeded in that role: It’s one of three bombers the Air Force still uses today. The others are the 70-plus-year-old B-52 and the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, which started life in the Advanced Technology Bomber project started by Carter. Though unknown at the time, the B-2 may have been one of the reasons he canceled the original B-1 program.
Most of the B-1Bs are still flying. Only one other B-1A survives at the Strategic Air Command Museum in Ashland, Nebraska.
F for fighter (and more)
The B-1A is the crown jewel of the Wings Over the Rockies, but it’s not the only jewel. There’s also an F-111 and an F-14, both swing-wing beauties in their own right.
The B-52B out front, certainly eye-catching, is the RB version capable of carrying a 300-pound reconnaissance pod plus eight additional crew to run it.
Then there are several Century Series fighters that are in fantastic shape. The F-104 Starfighter, little more than an engine with some stubby wings attached, is always a wonder to behold. It sits next to a F-102 Delta Dart and the guppy-mouthed F-100. There aren’t many military propeller aircraft — the most notable are a Beechcraft UC-45 Expeditor and a Douglas B-18 Bolo.
Wings Over the Rockies is impressive not just for its incredibly rare B-1A, but also for the immaculate condition of all its crafts. Some of the museum’s examples are in the best shape of any museum I’ve visited, and I’ve been to a lot.
I highly recommend checking it out if you’re in Denver or headed there. If not, check out the gallery above.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more.