Sitting here, looking at the calendar and seeing “6/8/2020” staring at me instantly takes my mind back to the tragic loss of the XB-70 Valkyrie on June 8, 1966.
Even as a young boy, that event had an effect on me that ended up lasting until today and will continue to do so until the day I check out of this life. I have written articles about this tragic moment in our Valley and also the greatness of that big beautiful bird we know as the XB-70 Valkyrie. Doing some soul searching this morning and reading some obscure writings on the incident, it occurred to me that those final seconds of men’s lives and the B-70 may not be well known by current generations, so this week I just want to share the story of those few seconds, to paint the picture of how something bigger than life can all be gone in just the blink of an eye.
Flight test 2-46 — which translates to air vehicle number 2, test flight number 46 — is the official designator of this tragic event. It was the 95th flight test of an XB-70 Valkyrie. Al White was in the XB-70 pilot’s seat for his 49th time. In the co-pilot’s seat was a newcomer: Air Force Maj. Carl S. Cross, a 40-year-old Tennessean, was the seventh man assigned to participate in the XB-70 flight test program. At 7:15 a.m., the XB-70-2 took off and left behind the Edwards runway for the last time. Many folks do not realize that this mission did have predetermined flight test objectives, consisting of 12 subsonic airspeed calculation runs and a single supersonic boom test run, after which White and Cross were to rendezvous with a contingent of General Electric-powered jets for a mid-air PR photographic session.
With the XB-70’s test duties over it was time for the meet-up. The rendezvous began at 8:27 a.m. By 8:43, the aircraft had all joined up on the XB-70 in a V-formation. The stage was set and it was time to roll cameras. Cameras began clicking at 8:45 and by 9:25 the photo taking session was over.
9:26 a.m.: “MID-AIR MID-AIR MID-AIR!” The radio came alive with the frantic and dreaded call of planes and pilots in distress. The first to suffer was NASA chief test pilot Joe Walker in his F-104N, as it rolled inverted across the back of the B-70. The F-104’s T-tail ripped at the Valkyrie’s drooped right wingtip and his errant craft rolled sharply left, out of control. It then flipped upside down and passed over the XB-70’s back, shearing off part of the right and most of its left vertical fins. While it was still inverted, the Starfighter pounded away at the Valkyrie’s left wing like a crazed woodpecker. The F-104 burst into flames, ripped into pieces and fell aft and away from the stricken Valkyrie. It twisted violently, flipped over and over through the air in a huge fireball, then fell to the desert floor below. Joe Walker was killed instantly. The entire interaction between the B-70 and his F-104 only lasted 3 seconds.
As if nothing had occurred, the XB-70A-2 flew on, wings straight and level, for 16 seconds. There was no indication in the cockpit that the craft had been mortally wounded; just a distant thump — detached, yet terrifying. Al White turned to Carl Cross and said, “I wonder who it is.” Even after they heard the frantic radio calls, neither White nor Cross tied the emergency to their aircraft. Even after another pilot in the formation, Joe Cotton, made the call that “Your tails are gone and you will probably spin,” they still didn’t think they were involved. Neither pilot heard the “s” on the word tail and didn’t associate the midair with the XB-70.
That all changed when the XB-70 shuddered and rolled over on its back, nose down, and went into a violent yaw, due to the fact that it no longer had sufficient vertical stabilizer area to hold it straight and level. It was at this point that both pilots knew their ship was doomed.
The airstream hitting the Valkyrie from such an uncommon angle flipped it through a giant snap roll, fuel spewing from the torn right wing. It was at this point that both pilots attempted to punch out in their individual escape modules. Only Al White was successful in parting ways with the stricken, out-of-control craft, but an incapacitated Carl Cross never made it out. Al White did not escape serious injuries. His descent to the desert floor in his capsule was also filled with problems that prevented a smooth landing and a broken arm and dislocated shoulder, along with internal injuries, made for a life-threatening experience that would keep him in the Edwards AFB Hospital and under the care of doctors for many years.
Al White guessed it was just 60 seconds from the time the XB-70 Valkyrie went into its death dance until the moment he ejected. He stated just a couple seconds later it would have been too late, as the G-forces would have had him pinned and incapacitated — which is what many felt had happened to Carl Cross.
In a world of seconds, so much can happen. From the time he punched out until the next day, Al had no idea of many of the dynamics of the entire event. He did even know that Joe and Carl had been killed, until a priest came to visit him at the hospital and told him that he had already talked to the wives of his friends.
Seconds, not minutes and hours, is the reality in flight test, when so much is happening at such enormous speeds and what we laymen on the ground consider as just a blur. The pilots, over time, have done their best to anticipate and prepare for the unexpected that can happen at lightning speed. But sometimes the unexpected can come from the ordinary. During an event where it just doesn’t seem like much danger is present, we are reminded that we never know, even in our own lives, when seconds can write a book about how the unexpected can change our lives forever.
On this June 8, we remember those who lost their lives that day; those who bore the lifelong physical and emotional scars, and the thousands who were personally affected by the loss of this beautiful craft. It will never be just another “jet” — it was an iconic symbol of American pride and ingenuity and the fruits of the labor of so many aerospace workers who called it their own gift to the skies of America.
Until next time my friends, Bob out …