John M. White

Valkyrie Down: The Unsolved Mystery

Jun 9, 2023

Perhaps the most beautiful aircraft ever built was the North American Aviation B-70 Valkyrie bomber.

This incredible bomber was designed to outrun any Soviet fighter jet by speeding along at Mach 3 with a full nuclear bomb load. It was as fast as the legendary SR-71, but three times it's size.

The futuristic looking aircraft was conceived in the 1950s and several prototypes were built in the early1960s.

The design of the aircraft was awe-inspiring with it's huge white, partially-folding wing with drooping wing tips.

It resembled a striking cobra snake!

The XB-70 Valkyrie in flight for a publicity photo formation flight
The XB-70 Valkyrie in flight.

Test Flights

The XB-70s had completed the manufacturer's stage (Phase 1) of the test program in June of 1966.

The aircraft had already participated in the NSBP (the National Sonic Boom Program) where the aircraft laid sonic booms over Edwards Air Base in the desert and where ground sensors from NASA and the USAF recorded and analyzed those effects.

Phase 2 was more about Silent Supersonic Transport research for which the XB-70s Mach 3 speed was particularly relevant. To capture this research the XB-70-AV2 aircraft was installed with instrumentation by NASA.

The original test flights were conducted by Al White and Joe Cotton. 

Alvin White was a North American Aviation test pilot and mechanical engineer, and Joe Cotton was a USAF test pilot on both the B-58 and XB-70 aircraft.

The aircraft program was turned over to the USAF, and Major Carl Cross was enrolled in the program and began to replace the original Valkyrie pilots. Major Cross was a Vietam veteran and Air Force test pilot.

A Photo Op

On June 8th, 1966, XB-70-AV2 (call sign 207) was piloted by Al White and Major Cross as co-pilot flying for a photo shoot for General Electric (the engine manufacturer), along with an airspeed calibration test and a second NSBP sonic boom run.

In order to accomplish the photo-shoot run for General Electric to photograph five different General Electric powered aircraft were to be featured, along with the XB-70 Valkyrie.

The aircraft used were Clay Lacy's Learjet, a Navy F-4B piloted by Commander Jerome Skyrud, a Phantom II pilotd by E. J/ Black, a T-38 Talon piloted by Captain Peter Hoag with Joe Cotton in the rear seat and a NASA F-104N Starfighter pilotd by Joe Walker, and a YF-5A piloted by John Fritz, and all were flown in formation with the XB-70.

The group flew in a racetrack pattern at 25,000 feet through some cumulus clouds for about 30 minutes at 300 mph.

Several times the cameraman in a USAF F-104D asked the formation to close in and hold that position, one time for almost 15 minutes to get the images he wanted.

On the final circuit the group were advised of a B-58 closing at a higher altitude, and all the pilots except Walker reported they had the aircraft in sight.

Tragedy Strikes

For some unknown reason Walker, flying the F-104N (N813NA), inexplicably moved slightly closer to the right wing of the Valkyrie. His aircraft suddently rose and the left tip of the aircraft's horizontal stabilizer touched the XB-70's drooped wingtip.

Perhaps Walker was distracted looking for the B-58, or perhaps he got caught in the airflow off the wings of the XB-70.

The F-104N Starfighter suddenly became unstable as it entered the wingtip vortices of the XB-70 and becoming inverted as it passed across the top of the XB-70's rear fuselage, taking off the right vertical stabilizer and the majority of the left one, bursting into flames causing the loss of one of the world's most skillful and experienced test pilots.

The Lockheed F-104N N813NA after it's collission with the North American Aviation XB-70A-AV2 aircraft and exploding, killing pilot Joe Walker.
The F-104N exploding and disentegrating after colliding with the XB-70.

All of this took mere seconds as the disaster continued to unfold.

The F-104 was cut in half behind the cockpit by the Valkyrie's vertical stabilizer.

The front half of the F-104 smashed into the top of the left wing of the Valkyrie, severly damaging it.

Al White called out "mid-air, mid-air!" while not imediately realizing the rear of the XB-70 had been struck.

But quickly Joe Cotton in the T-38A announced that "two verticals ... came of, left and right", and White immediately knew that the XB-70 had been struck.

The stricken XB-70 continued to fly normally for 16 seconds and then began a slightly rotating motion.

White tried to correct it, but without vertical stabilizers it resulted in the increased instability of the aircraft, which then snap rolled to the right and entered an uncontrollable, inverted right hand spiral descent spilling fuel form it's damaged wing.

When a large section of the left wing broke off the XB-70 entered a flat spin.

White then encapsulated himself in the escape capsule.

The Valkyrie Escape Capsule

The XB-70 was equipped with two escape capsules, one for each pilot, in order for the pilots to exit the aircraft if necessary.

The XB-70's escape capsule with Al White next to it.
The XB-70's escape capsule with Al White next to it.

The capsule, which is similar in concept to the B-58 Escape Capsule, contains survival gear, oxygen systems and the flight control stick.

This system allowed for the aircrew to encapsulate by the pulling of a handle, which would retract the seat and the aircrew's limbs, then the upper and lower clamshells would close.

The capsule would then pressurize and allow the aircrew to fly the aircraft down to a lower altitude before they opened the clamshell.

In the case of a major aircraft malfunction requiring ejection, a trigger on either handrest could be squeezed to initiate ejection.

The capsule would then be catapulted out of the aircraft.

On exit it would deploy a set of booms for stability, as a sustainer rocket propelled it away from the aircraft.

Seconds later the main recovery parachute would be deployed, followed by an impact attenuation airbag located under the capsule.

However, for White the system did not work as planned because his right arm got caught between the upper capsule door and the bailout handle as the doors closed.

White could see Cross but the intercom was inoperative, and he could not help or talk to Cross. 

Cross was probably injured and rendered unconcious when the XB-70 entered the unexpected snap roll. Cross's seat was not retracted into the escape capsule.

After almost a minute and a half White managed to free his arm and eject, but the capsule doors were still partially open.

The parachute deployed right away, tipping White forward in his seat, and he watched the tumbling wreckage of the Valkyrie passed close beneath him.

White managed to fully close the capsule door which helped with his vertigo problem.

The Final Plunge

The XB-70 our of control and going down in this photograph. You can see that a large section of the left wing is missing and JP-8 fuel is spraying out of the damaged tanks.
The XB-70 our of control and going down in this photograph. You can see that a large section of the left wing is missing and JP-8 fuel is spraying out of the damaged tanks.

It took approximately two minutes after the initial collision for the XB-70 to hit the ground near Barstow, CA.

White's capsule drifted past the blazing fire pyre and hit the ground with a 44g force.

White's heels made indentations in the floor of the capsule, but he was able to extricate himself through an 18-inch gap in the capsule doors despite his arm and back injuries.

He then wrapped himself in his parachute to alleviate the coldness of his state of shock as he waited for rescue.

Cross's remains were still inside the wreck, but Al White was alive with severe inuries.

Twenty-two miles away the remains of the F-104N was found burning white hot. 

Some distance further on the nose section of the aircraft was found with Joe Walker's body still strapped into his seat, and it was clear he had been killed in the initial collision.

The North American Aviation XB-70A-2-NA Valkyrie 62-0707 wreckage burning north of Barstow, CA.
The North American Aviation XB-70A-2-NA Valkyrie 62-0707 wreckage burning north of Barstow, CA.

Times Change

By the time the prototypes of this aircraft were built, and test flights begun, the arms race had changed from strategic aircraft to Intercontinental Missiles. 

The Valkyrie's role as a nuclear bomber was limited after the introduction of ICBMs, and eventually defense cuts led to the project being cancelled in the mid-1960s.

Below is a video showing the mid-air collision of the XB-70 Valkyrie and the F-104N on June 8, 1966: 

I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here: Subscribe here:

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!

 

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