The aircraft was indeed enormous. According to NASA chief historian Christian Gelzer, “its cockpit was three stories in the air, its delta wings stretched one hundred five feet and it was one hundred eighty-five feet long. Six General Electric YJ93 jet engines could propel the plane at speeds up to Mach 3, three times the speed of sound.”
He continues: “Weighing a half-million pounds due to its stainless steel rather than aluminum construction, the Valkyrie was designed as an intercontinental bomber and it featured an advanced aerodynamic design, including canards and drooping wing tips.”
But several years after the aircraft was initially developed, a huge disaster struck the XB-70 Valkyrie during what was thought to be a routine photoshoot.
“On June 8, 1966, an F-4B Phantom, a YF-5A Freedom Fighter, a Lockheed F-104N Starfighter, and a T-38A Talon formed up on the huge, white XB-70 over California’s high desert near Edwards. … Flight Research Center chief pilot Joe Walker, who had flown the X-15 rocket plane, the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle and many other unique research aircraft, was flying one of the center’s F-104s just off the Valkyrie’s right wing,” Gelzer writes.
“Without warning, Walker’s F-104 was suddenly drawn in toward the bomber. His aircraft clipped the right wing tip, rolled up and over, struck the XB-70’s right vertical fin, sheered off most of the left vertical fin, and exploded into a ball of fire as it glanced off the left wing. Walker died instantly. For sixteen seconds the XB-70 continued to fly straight and level. Then the experimental bomber began a slow roll into an inverted spiral; portions of a wing broke away and fuel began streaming from the stricken aircraft,” he adds.
XB-70 pilot Al White did manage to eject but was severely injured. Unfortunately, Air Force Maj. Carl Cross did not make it out.
Cause of Collision
As for what caused the accident, Gelzer notes that an “investigation pointed to the wake vortex of the XB-70’s wingtips as the reason for the F-104’s sudden roll over and into the bomber.”
The XB-70 Valkyrie itself was eventually deemed obsolete and shut down by next-generation enemy defense missiles and fast-rising costs to keep it afloat.
However, in a last-ditch effort to save the plane, “the Air Force and contractor North American Aviation developed several alternate uses for the plane, including everything from launching intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to space capsules,” according to Popular Mechanics.
There were also ideas of transforming the XB-70 into a commercial aircraft that could potentially rival the Anglo-French-built Concorde SST. However, none of these ideas would ever be turned into reality.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.