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.