09:26, 8 June 1966. General Electric Aerial Publicity Photo Shoot. Flight Level 320, 17 Miles northeast of Barstow, California.
“MIDAIR! MIDAIR!” Air Force T-38 pilot, Capt. Pete Hoag shouts over the radio.
“You got the verticals! This is Cotton, you got the verticals!—came off left and right! We’re staying with ya, no sweat, now you’re holding good, Al!” crackled in the T-38 back seater Col. Joe Cotton.
The two test pilots were in the cockpit of a T-38 trainer flying off the left wing of the new XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, aircraft number 62-0207. They just saw the civilian registered NASA F-104N Starfighter of pilot Joe Walker slide upside down across the top of the huge white bomber, shear off both it’s twin tails and skid sideways, then break in two, killing Walker instantly. Behind the XB-70 Walker’s F-104N tumbled end over end, a pinwheel of bright orange flame nearly six hundred feet long tracing its convulsive death spiral.
One of the most bizarre accidents in aviation history was happening, an accident so remarkable it compares to the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937, the collision of two 747 Jumbo Jets on the island of Tenerife in 1977 and the crash of the Concorde in Paris in 2000.
America is testing a new superbomber capable of streaking over the North Pole at Mach 3 and 70,000 feet. The North American XB-70 Valkyrie accelerates the arms race with Russia as the biggest, fastest, most powerful, highest flying and deadliest bomber ever flown.
But now it is dying. It’s tail torn off, spinning downward, rolling onto its back, streaming a lethal fog of special JP-6 jet fuel in a misty veil on its way to a desert grave. Inside the dying plane two men are fighting for their lives. Only one will win that fight.
Earlier that Day, General Electric Aerial Publicity Photo Shoot. Near Edwards Air Force Base, Mojave Desert, California.
The flight started on a brilliant desert day from Edwards Air Force Base. High-scattered clouds, Kodachrome picturesque conditions for a publicity photo shoot for shareholders of the General Electric Company, the outfit that makes the jet engines in each of the five airplanes in the photo shoot formation.
Arranging the aerial photo shoot was difficult. Some official permissions were subverted. A last minute attempt to obtain a B-58 Hustler bomber, another General Electric powered aircraft, fell through. But this formation was spectacular enough.
Pilot Clay Lacy flew the Gates Learjet as the photo plane for today’s shoot. The Learjet was selected as the best plane to hold all the photographers and keep up with the giant superbomber and the rest of the fighter planes.
The photographers in the back of the Learjet are giddy. They wipe the inside windows of the Learjet to get the clearest photos and load their motor driven Nikons with rolls of 35mm Kodachrome slide film. A motion picture photographer is also on board with a large film movie camera.
The XB-70 Valkyrie, piloted today by North American test pilot Major Carl Cross and Air Force pilot Colonel Al White, performed a series of speed calibration runs including one supersonic speed run earlier this morning. Following the flight data and calibration test runs the Valkyrie joins up with the photo shoot formation as they are assembled by radar vector over the Edwards test range.
It is the first time test pilot Carl Cross sits at the controls of the XB-70. He arrived over an hour before today’s flight to review procedures in the XB-70 cockpit with fellow XB-70 pilot Col. Joe Cotton, who already has time in the XB-70 left seat. Today Joe Cotton sits back seat chase in the T-38 that will form up off the left wingtip of the XB-70 during the GE photo shoot.
Col. Joe Cotton’s recollections of the XB-70 are pragmatic compared to the romantic notions evoked by the current, majestic display of Valkyrie in the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. “On the first flight in that airplane, I couldn’t get the gear up. We were supposed to go supersonic. The contract said go supersonic… the airplane hadn’t heard that. The gear wouldn’t come up, one of the engines ran away because a ball bearing came loose in a fuel control, we shut an engine down, and caught fire on landing. And that was the introduction, the start of problems.”
The XB-70 was a problematic aircraft. It had difficulty holding consistent altitude according to some test pilot reports. Because it was so vast and complex, mechanical problems seemed to haunt every flight. The giant bomber had one foot on the dock of stick and rudder aviation, and the other on the boat of the new age of supersonic flight, and the two were moving apart. Joe Cotton recounts an incident when an 18-inch by 10-foot wide section of wing came off the aircraft at Mach three. He said it was like, “You woke with an elephant in bed with you. That’s how evident it was.”
08:27, 8 June 1966. Five Aircraft formation, General Electric Aerial Publicity Photo Shoot. Flight Level 320, Area northeast of Barstow, California near Edwards AFB.
The photo op formation has converged, slowly moving into a wedge formation of smaller aircraft trailing off the left and right wingtips of the giant XB-70. By any account, it is a majestic display: Left wing, a white, two-seat Northrop T-38A Talon trainer (#59-1601) piloted by USAF Capt. Pete Hoag with Col. Joe Cotton as backseater; left slot off the XB-70’s wingtip, A U.S. Navy McDonnell-Douglas F-4B Phantom II (#150993) piloted by Navy Commander Jerome P. Skyrud with radar intercept officer E.J. Black sitting back seat of the Phantom II; Then the XB-70; Joe Walker’s civilian registered NASA F-104N Starfighter (N813NA) is right wing off the XB-70; then a pretty Northrop YF-5A (59-4898) single seat fighter flown by GE test pilot John M. Fritz.
Joe Walker has arguably the toughest position in the formation. The little needle-nosed F-104 has stubby wings and a kite tail. It is built for high-speed intercepts, not low speed demonstration formation flight. There are reasons the Thunderbirds never flew the F-104. Some reports suggest Joe Walker questioned the reason for the photo flight, suggesting the formation flight yielded no useable data to contribute to the operational test program.
Walker’s job in the formation is a tough one, even for an outstanding test pilot. He has to keep the flying missile F-104 tightly positioned off the right wingtip of the XB-70 and spaced at a visually pleasing interval between the XB-70 and the F-5A to his right. He will not be able to see the wingtip of the XB-70 behind him unless he cranes his neck uncomfortably to his left rear in his flight helmet and oxygen mask. The high tail design of the F-104 and the drooping right wingtip of the XB-70, lowered into this position to facilitate greater lift for low speed flight, make for another bad combination.
The photo shoot progresses well. Happy photographers in the Learjet change rolls of 35mm film quickly as the aircraft skirt above the clouds and the light subtly changes. The shoot lasts 40 minutes without incident.
As the aircraft prepare to separate Walker’s controls suddenly feel vague and mushy, as though the plane’s control surfaces have been taken over by some greater force. He is trapped in the swirling vortices tumbling at cyclonic speed off the lowered wingtips of the XB-70.
The needle nose F-104 bucks upward, there is a thud, another buck, and the plane’s nose rears violently upward like a bronco hurling its rider. Walker likely slams his stick forward and right, but it is too late. Physics have taken over. Trapped in the whirlpool hurricane of the wingtip vortices from the XB-70, the F-104 rolls inverted to the left, executing a snap roll with the XB-70 wingtip as its axis. Yaw control is lost, and in an instant Walker is turn-styled sideways to the flight path. His body is slammed forward and right into the harness holding him in the ejection seat of the F-104N.
Walker has completely departed controlled flight as the inverted, now sideways F-104 sheets across the top of the XB-70’s wing, shearing off both of its twin tails, one of them decapitating the F-104 and killing Walker instantly as it slices through the cockpit. The boundary layer of air surrounding the XB-70 spits out the wreckage of the F-104 behind it, like trash swirling behind a speeding car. The dying F-104 cartwheels tail over nose as a long pinwheel of yellow fire arcs behind it. It spins briefly sideways, wings ripping off, and tumbles to an unmarked desert grave 30,000 feet below.
Inside the XB-70 co-pilot Al White turns to Carl Cross and asks, “I wonder who got hit?” Sitting almost 200 feet in front of the place where Walker’s F-104N tore into the XB-70 White and Cross do not know they are hit too. They did not understand the radio traffic immediately after the collision.
Until the XB-70 and their controls began to act funny. Funnier than usual.
After 16 seconds of stable flight with its twin tails gone, physics and aerodynamics begin to enforce their ruthless laws on the XB-70. Al White has the instincts of a test pilot though, and without panic he counteracts the roll by slamming the right, number six engine throttle to the firewall. A similar control technique was used in 1989 when a civilian DC-10, United Airlines Flight 232 makes an emergency crash landing at Sioux City, Iowa. But the XB-70’s engines are all mounted close to the centerline of the aircraft so asymmetrical changes in thrust exert only a moderate influence on yaw and roll. Without its vertical stabilizers, the already tough to fly XB-70 is on its way to becoming a huge, white coffin.
The Learjet photo plane is still near the formation, despite the other pilots’ radio calls to “Get the Lear out of here!” Stunned photographers inside continue to shoot photos as the XB-70 rolls twice, then begins to Frisbee downward into the clouds cloaked in a growing mix of its own lethal fuel vapor spraying outward from the ruptured wing tanks. One spark of fire and the plane will become a fatal fireball.
The XB-70 is equipped with a revolutionary crew escape system designed for safe ejection during supersonic flight. Once the ejection sequence is initiated the pilot and co-pilot’s ejection seats slide rearward a short distance where an articulated clamshell housing closes downward and forward fully enclosing the pilot. There is even a window in the front of the escape enclosure for the pilot to see out of. Once the capsule is closed, the entire escape pod is ejected out of the aircraft on rails powered by rocket motors. Unfortunately, the system is being subjected to building centrifugal forces as the XB-70’s spin begins to accelerate. Accumulated outward G-forces are making it more difficult by the second to move rearward into the escape pod. It is like trying to walk toward the center of a merry-go-round as it speeds up.
Inside the mortally wounded XB-70 Al White and Carl Cross actuate their ejection systems. Al White’s functions well, yanking his ejector seat rearward into the capsule where he is able to slam his clamshell doors shut over the ejector seat, but not without a struggle that shatters his right arm in the closing door just before he is rocketed out of the plane.
Carl Cross is having trouble. G-forces are preventing his rearward movement into the escape capsule, and they are building with every second as the XB-70’s spin accelerates. The seat retraction system is unable to overcome the accumulated centrifugal force of the spin and Cross is trapped forward in the cockpit with no way to escape as the altimeter unwinds.
He never makes it out.
09:27:28, 8 June 1966. General Electric Aerial Publicity Photo Shoot. Above crash sight northeast of Barstow, California near Edwards AFB.
“Chute! Chute! Good chute!” radios Capt. Pete Hoag from the pilot’s seat of the T-38 when he sees Al White’s parachute deploy. He never sees a ‘chute for Carl Cross.
Seconds later the XB-70’s crippled hulk pancakes flat into the desert at 35°3’47″N 117°1’27″W. Fire engulfs the wreckage on impact.
Two pilots, Carl Cross and Joe Walker, loose their lives. The XB-70, 62-0207, is destroyed in the crash.
In the subsequent crash investigation four officers are implicated in the circumstances surrounding the accident: Col. Joe Cotton, who was sitting back seat in the T-38 during the crash flight, was one. Albert M. Cates Director of Systems Test at the Air Force Flight Test Center was another. Two public affairs and media officers at Edwards Air Force Base, Lt. Col. James G. Smith and Chief of Media Relations Lt. Bill Campbell were included in the inquest for allowing the photo shoot to proceed.
The investigation would reveal that the photo shoot pressed on under continued pressure from General Electric’s advertising and marketing agency, BBD&O.
Al White, pilot of the XB-70 during the crash, went on to become the Manager of Flight Operations, Research and Development for TWA Airlines. He accumulated over 8,500 hours of flight time in more than a hundred different aircraft and served as expert witness in aircraft accident litigation. Until his death in 2006 he lived in the aviation Mecca of Tucson, Arizona.
The problems with the XB-70 program, even without the photo shoot accident, was one of a number of factors that changed how the Air Force viewed its role in the future of strategic warfare. Air Force doctrine evolved away from the high and fast concept of the XB-70 and even a proposed nuclear-powered superbomber to intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine launched ballistic missiles and low altitude penetration bombing. A new era of aircraft design was also secretly underway called “stealth”. It would herald another new chapter in military aviation off the back of the superbomber program that ended in the California desert.
In Part 1 of our feature about the XB-70 Valkyrie “Flight of the Valkyrie” we go inside the thinking behind the XB-70 program and the obsolete strategy of the Cold War that gave birth to the mega-bomber concept.
43 thoughts on “Crash of The Valkyrie.”
One has to wonder if the XB-70 would have become operational had this crash not occured.
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The XB-70 program was only an experimental program by this stage. There were never plans for production.
That article is interesting but poorly written and edited.
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Frank, I’m glad you found it interesting and your comment made me go back and re-read it. Thank you Sir.
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Great article…. You missed one obvious edit, though…. It’s “lose” not “loose”.
Two pilots, Carl Cross and Joe Walker, loose their lives. The XB-70, 62-0207, is destroyed in the crash.
There are several instances where it should say “its” rather than “it’s.” As in “Its engines were produced by GE.” “It’s” means “it is.”
What are you talking about!!! It’s a beautifully written tribute and factual in every respect.
Agreed. They misidentified one of the aircraft involved. They say that a McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom was involved in the photo shoot. At the time of the incident, there were no McDonnell-Douglas aircraft in flying condition – since this was roughly a year before the company was formed by the merger of McDonnell and Douglas. It was a McDonnell F-4 Phantom II.
Douglas was bought in October of 1966. I remember because it cost me a very nice letter from Donald Douglas Jr, for work I did on the EC-135N at Edwards AFB, which for some reason had a Douglas air crew working to modify that Boeing aircraft.
I was there that day. It was the day of my first X-15 launch, and on the way out in the pitch black early morning, I failed to see the XB-70 Air Vehicle #2 was not still parked outside our shop. The X-15 launch was scrubbed after takeoff, leaving their chase planes to assist in the XB-70 disaster.
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As mentioned above there are some editing problems here. Frist, be clear that White was the pilot and Cross the co-pilot. Second, White at the time was employed by North American at the time and while he was an officer in the Air Force, he was retired. I only wish I could find my copy of his book to confirm this.
Al White was a full time NAA Test Pilot after retirement from USAF. He flew with my father Bert Marshall, Jr. in the 355th Fighter Group based out of Steeple Morden, England.
I’m not a test pilot but have over 20,000 hours flight time. Why would you put a F-104, which is difficult to handle, between the YF-5A and the XB-70 in a formation flight? The F-104 would be more suited to fly on the outside of the formation due to its flying quirks. Just a curious observation.
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I was there, June 8, 1966, and this event changed us. If anybody wants to read what it was like for us folk on the ground, send me a note to email@example.com.
I was a Lockheed F-104 test pilot and one of my tasks once was to brief Joe Walker on the differences of the F-104N as compared to the other models NASA was flying at the time. I have a treasured photo of Joe and I at the airplane. It was our understanding that Joe’s elevator contacted the end of the downward deflected B-70 right wingtip which caused a pitch up and loss of control. This scenario is somewhat more valid than a “whirlpool hurricane” drawing his airplane into a “snap roll” (roll yes, true snap roll = no way).
The other unmentioned fact of this accident, as we understood it was by usual Air Force standards, very poorly organized and unbriefed and was a typical – “lets meet at thirty thousand over Edwards and take some pictures”. More of a “play it by ear” mission.
Joe was a very fine fellow and a loss to the aviation world. I would later have the same job at TWA as did Al White in his short time there in 1967.
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George, thank you very much for your insights and for reading. I sure wish I could have talked to you before writing this. As you correctly point out, I took some… “creative license” and added some drama to the description of the behavior of Joe’s F-104N during the crash. I never saw video or film of the crash and wasn’t able to talk to anyone who actually witnessed the crash. Because of that, my “filling in of the blanks” may not be- as you point out- as technically accurate as it could (should?) be. Again- thank you for the observation and for reading and please excuse my embellishment as a writer’s sense of drama.
They may have the footage in the History Channel/Discovery Channel program Wings episode that covers this very aircraft and the ensuing disaster that ended the program. Try looking it up though it would be about 20+ years old by now since I watched when I was still in middle or high school.
It’s amazing in favor of me to have a site, which is useful in favor of my
know-how. thanks admin
This tragic incident has always fascinated me as an example of bad judgment overruling common sense (too many aircraft and the implications of jet wash; a pure PR stunt). What is not mentioned in the article is veteran test pilot Fitz Fulton, who would later pilot NASA’s 747 with shuttle Enterprise on its back for glide tests, was the original pilot for the XB-70 that day. Due to his being needed as pilot of the NB-52 for that X-15 flight alluded to by a previous poster, he was replaced.
Even though the X-15 drop was canceled, the crew roster for the day’s flight held. One can imagine what went through Fulton’s mind at the time. Years later in an article in Air & Space magazine, he would comment, “I always thought that if I’d been on the flight it wouldn’t have happened,” adding that it would not have been his flying abilities that could have prevented the accident. “You change the players, you change the outcome.” For further reading on the XB-70 program and Fulton’s career, you should read his excellent memoir ‘Father of the Mother Planes.’
We lost aircraft almost continually at Eddie’s, but the XB-70 event was a big one for everybody, and the base went into a depression. Working nights, a few days later, dragging my tired body back from working just after midnight, I saw the two very large stake-bed trucks with the XB-70 parts, parked in the shadows of the M&M hangar. They were gone by dayshift.
I had only been there for two or three weeks when this happened, but it got to me, too. A day or so later, a troop came into our Comm shop with a roll-away covered with white sheets. It was lunch time, and I was the only one in the shop. He threw them back and asked if I could identify the charred pieces of what used to be control boxes. I identified ours, those of nav and autopilot, and asked if they were from Joe’s F-104. His voice cracked when he told me how much they found of Joe.
Maybe I should have not brought this up, it is one of the many things I now work with at the Vet Center. Sorry if it is out-of-place here.
No, I don’t think any recollection would be out of place; as an aerospace historian and photographer I have read and heard first-hand about many tragedies and accidents. It’s part of the history of aviation and spaceflight told from the point of view of the participants or observers and an important addition to the historical record.
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For photos of the memorials to Cross and Walker at and near the XB-70 crash site, and more on the accident, visit the excellent site http://www.area51specialprojects.com/xb70_crash.html
Al, I was just a Comm fixer, a worker bee, but was lucky to be one in a rare hive of flying objects.
Knowing my grand kids would not understand what made us, forged us, pushed us past the elastic limit, if we did not find a way to tell them, I started writing up my events in the service, and the nature of the Cold War. Half are from Edwards, the the others from setting up, testing, deploying and operating Igloo White, 1967-68. If interested, I can send you some personal vignettes, . . . just a view from the bottom.
Yes that would make for fascinating reading! Edwards history and the X-planes are part of my interest, as is manned spaceflight. As in most cases, there is more than meets the eye when reading ‘official’ or technical histories of many programs. I especially did not know much about the ‘Igloo White’ project during Vietnam, which from what I read online was very much ahead of its time as far as technology and deployment.
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How can I send it privately?
Al, I am firstname.lastname@example.org, if you are hesitant to put yours out there.
Send me a line there, and we can do it.
I learned of my father’s involvement in the crash in an unusual way. When I as a teenager I asked him what was the fastest he ever drove in a car. He said he drove a truck one time at over 110 mph. I asked him about the story and he said it was when he was following a police car to a crash site. The police where there to escort them and clear the way on the small highway and the police officer confirmed the speed of the big Dodge weapons carriers with its oversized tires. The trip was from George Air Force Base to the crash site. They needed EOD technicians to disarm the rockets on Cross’s ejection seat and look for other explosive hazards. He said when they arrived at the site there was a local coroner right out o a Hollywood script; black outfit with cowboy hat and six-gun. He was “in charge”, as he told everyone, and didn’t allow my dad and his team to work. Eventually the proper authorities arrived and the work got done. My dad was home for dinner, told he had an interesting day, and all of us just nodded. Just another day in the Air Force.
Why doesn’t anyone mention that the F-104n was flying between the vertical stabilizers of he XB-70 ! It was part of the photo op plan ! Walker lost control and sheared off both tails . There was no right wing turbulence causing a barrel roll over the Valkyrie. . Look at the photo. he nose of the Strfighter is between the tails!!
I’m pretty sure it’s a trick of perspective; that the F-104 is out beyond the XB-70’s right wingtip. At issue is that the exhaust nozzles between the two vertical tails are forward of the line defined by the outer wing’s trailing edge. Your eye and brain don’t expect that gap, and parse the image as if the F-104 was closer. A simple geometric analysis of known dimensions (for example, the root chords of the XB-70 vertical tail and the F-104 wing) would probably show that the F-104 is much further away than it might appear at first glance.
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I was wondering about too, photo looks like he (Walker) is right in the rear center up in the verts
The photo showing the crash location is inaccurate. Where the placemark is is closer to where it came down. You can overlay the photo of the actual crash with Google Earth imagery and see that the plane is against the northerly slope to the south of the road, about 200′ south of where the photo is indicating.
Roads criss-cross the desert everywhere, and rarely do they meet in anything but a sharp angle. The angle is merely a coincidence.
You people are wrong. Walker’s F104 Starfighter was not trapped in the whirlpool hurricane of the wingtip vortices from the XB70, Walker wasn’t paying attention and flew right into the wingtip of the Valkyrie. Walker should have never been in the formation.
It is easy to speculate now, decades later.
It was the day of my first X-15 launch, as a communications tech, and I watched Joe as he took off to join the XB-70 flight just before dawn. The X-15 flight was cancelled, but the XB continued on its way, . . . to the boneyard. We lost a lot of aircraft the year I was there, (XC-142, XV-5A, F-111A, F-104A, a variant of Blackbird, and other unfortunate events), but none affected the base as much as that one.
Yeah you are correct not paying attention the beautiful plane threw him for a loop seriously
Very interesting piece of aviation history..as a pilot back then i remember that day very well..thanks for this artical
I also have a copy of Al Whites Book and remember it as being extremely kind as to how & why Joe Walkers 104 ever made contact with the XB-70. I do have a couple of questions. On a Bob Hoover Memorial page on FB I ask as to his whereabouts on this fateful day as he was with North American at the time. I was told that he was in fact piloting the Gates Photog Lear. I have also heard that Clay Lacy was its Pilot. Secondly, was it Fulton that commandeered a Helicopter and took a bead right toward an inbound news chopper in an honorable attempt to prevent them from getting graphic pics of the perished?
I’m a journalist doing research about the crash.
Have you seen the official accident report?
Have you ever seen video of the full crash sequence? I find it highly unlikely that it doesn’t exist, given that we have video of the lead-up and aftermath.
I know it’s a grim, taboo topic, but this is history, at this point. We still have plenty to learn from seeing the complete video. SST’s are back in fashion, and making the video public would help engineers build safer aircraft. Imagine the video analyses that can be done by corporations and academic institutions alike. We all benefit from that. Not to mention, others in the comments section here have made similar arguments about its historical value and importance, and I completely agree with them.
If anyone else has information regarding the accident report or complete video sequence, email me at email@example.com
There is no film/video of it, It does not exist simply because the filming had just been completed, film cameras turned off. Remember, it was film…not like today with digital and endless amounts of data storage to keep things rolling along…
I believe it may have Don Mallick that chased away the news copter.
Kelly Johnson was against the ejection capsules. The A-12 Oxcart and the SR-71 ejection system was excellent. The pressure suit and the ejection seat provided excellent protection during ejection at any altitude. I was the first to eject out of the A-12 at 30,000 feet; Bill Weaver
safely “ejected” from the SR-71 at 80,000 feet. There was an ejection from the SR-71 when still on the Beale AFB runway during take off.
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