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The Air Force considered an experimental warplane that could have flown rapidly in contested airspace to bring nuclear bombs to the Soviet Union. The XB-70 Valkyrie supersonic jet could reach Mach-3 with an altitude of up to 70,000 feet – qualities that proponents thought would allow it to outfly Soviet air defenses. The long-range Valkyrie could carry conventional as well as nuclear weapons and was considered to be ahead of its time when conceived in the mid-1950s.
XB-70 Valkyrie: Big, Fast, and Formidable
The Valkyrie enjoyed technological prowess in 1957 that carried it to scorching speeds. It held six General Electric turbojets in a pod beneath its 10- foot wingspan. The XB-70 featured swept delta wings and large canards in front of the airplane. The overall length of the bomber was 196 feet. This large size required a crew of four, including a pilot and co-pilot, plus a bombardier and a weapons systems officer.
The high speed created a substantial amount of heat, and the Valkyrie was made by North American Aviation with titanium and brazed stainless steel. The brazing process allowed builders to skip the normal step of welding components together. The Valkyrie took its first flight in 1964. Five thousand people watched the giant “goose” of a plane take off under the control of an NAA test pilot and an Air Force co-pilot.
Newfangled Aerodynamic Features
The airplane depended on an advanced aerodynamic concept called compression lift. This started with the bomber making a shock wave. The inlets in front of the wings would then create a disturbance that the NAA believed would send upward pressure under the wings. This created significant lift, which would support the Mach-3 speed. To make this happen, the delta wing could fold down 65 degrees.
The airplane weighed a gargantuan 542,000 pounds at maximum takeoff weight. This was the biggest airplane ever built that could reach Mach-3 – the landing gear alone weighed six tons.
There are risks to flying at that weight and size. In 1966, an accident killed two pilots and destroyed one Valkyrie and an F-104 during an effort to take in-air publicity photos. This made the Air Force look critically at the program, and the branch wondered if all the engineering for the Valkyrie was worth it.
The high drag, weight, and speed also required large amounts of fuel, even more than the B-52, limiting the Valkyrie’s range to only 5,000 nautical miles. As a result, the aircraft was then converted to a dual-mode reconnaissance and bomber platform.
The two Valkyries that were built cost $700,000 each and the new president in 1961, John F. Kennedy, and his Department of Defense believed the airplane was not worth such a steep price. The program limited production of the XB-70 to only the two airplanes already produced.
Would It Have Been Shot Down Over Enemy Territory?
By then, Soviet air defenses had improved so much that flying the Valkyrie in contested environments would have been risky. In 1960 an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, and Air Force acquisition chiefs and force planners believed the same could happen to the XB-70.
The Pentagon thought that intercontinental ballistic missiles could better deliver nuclear weapons in a cost-effective manner, without the risk of pilots being shot down and lost to enemy forces.
The U.S. military finally said no to the XB-70. It was considered a high-cost and high-risk endeavor. It was even thought of as a dangerous airplane, despite the technological breakthroughs it featured. The Valkyrie program paved the way for future passenger supersonic flight, but this value didn’t keep it from becoming a museum piece.
By 1969, it occupied a space at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside of Dayton, Ohio.
Author Expertise and Experience: Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.