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Flightline Friday: the awesome, incredible, mind-blowing XB-70 Valkyrie August 22, 2014

Posted by Tantumblogo in Admin, awesomeness, Flightline Friday, fun, history, silliness, Society.
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Imagine, if you can, an aircraft larger than an MD-11, and weighing as much, that could travel over three times the speed of sound, and not just for a brief spurt, as experimental and a few fighter aircraft could do, but for hours at a time.  Imagine an aircraft that could conduct its full strike mission from CONUS to the USSR, and back, in 6 hours or less.  If you can imagine that, you can understand what an incredible aircraft the North American XB-70 Valkyrie was.

Conceived in the late 1950s as a replacement for the mighty B-52 Stratofortress just then entering squadron service, it was the XB-70 that embodied all of General Curtis E. LeMay’s desired characteristics in an intercontinental bomber.  LeMay knew the B-52 would soon be rendered highly vulnerable to rapidly improving Soviet air defenses.  LeMay also knew that a highly supersonic bomber could make almost any defense extremely difficult and incredibly expensive, even for a country like the FSU that spent almost half its gross domestic product on “defense.”   It was predicted that the B-70, possessing extremely capable electronic countermeasures and even hypersonic defensive missiles shaped like little flying saucers, would be able to penetrate any defense the Soviets could conceive.

However, the B-70 program ran into two enemies it could not overcome: the intercontinental ballistic missile, which supposedly rendered the manned bomber obsolete, and the intransigent hatred of Robert Strange McNamara for both manned bombers in particular and the Strategic Air Command in general.  McNamara was convinced that ICBMs were far, far cheaper than manned bombers, even if ICBMs had numerous limitations and were very vulnerable themselves (the whole bomber-ICBM debate, which ties in deeply with the ICBM-missile defense debate, would take several very looong posts to unpack.  Suffice it to say, what most people “know” regarding the supposed invulnerability of ICBMs, the high vulnerability of high-altitude high speed bombers, and the claimed inefficacy of missile defense is all completely, totally wrong).  It turned out, as usual, that McNamara was massively wrong: while individual missiles were cheaper than individual bombers, by the time one added in the cost of super-hardened missile silos, the incredibly elaborate and redundant command and control systems needed to manage an ICBM fleet, maintaining complicated missiles in cramped holes in the ground, etc for a very long time, bombers are actually quite a bit cheaper.  But McNamara and his Kennedy/Johnson allies had the whip hand, and the B-70 program was reduced to a technology demonstrator.

But what a demonstrator it was!  The first XB-70 was pretty limited – it could fly at Mach 3, but had some structural problems that limited it, eventually, to less than M2.5.  But the second XB-70, incorporating many improvements, could cruise at well above Mach 3 and nearly 80,000 ft as long as the fuel lasted (which was quite a while).  A number of 5 hour missions were flown with most of that time being spent above Mach 3.

Well, as always on Friday, I have run out of time.  The videos below are only pretty good, they give some great footage but do repeat the prevailing, and erroneous, orthodoxy regarding the supposed vulnerability of the B-70 to surface-to-air missiles.  That vulnerability was always greatly overstated for political purposes.  Maybe more on this next week.  The B-70 was a pivotal program at a pivotal time, and tied in so many issues related to strategic offense and defense that one post cannot even begin to do it justice.

Know that improved, production versions of the B-70 were to fly as fast as M3.5 and at altitudes nearing 100,000 ft.  If you know anything about surface-to-air missiles, you know there are almost none that would have a capability to engage a target that high and fast, and that any such missile that could be developed to do so would require such awesome capabilities as to be nearly as expensive as the bomber itself.  And, the bomber can shoot back.

Pretty good overview from Discovery Wings:

Testing was not without problems.  The landing gear locked up on one early flight, resulting in a dangerous fire and a quite grave situation:

The B-70 testing program was brought to an end because of a really preventable tragedy on a publicity flight.  GE wanted to get video footage of a bunch of GE-powered planes (which the XB-70 was), but Joe Walker flew his F-104 into the wake turbulence of the XB-70, his aircraft flipped over the back of the Valkyrie removing both vertical fins, with the result of two men dying and two aircraft lost, including one irreplaceable one.  God rest his soul, Chuck Yeager said Walker was always a lousy formation pilot (for all his great aviation achievements and records set), and never should have been on that flight:

Below, the Standard Aircraft Characteristics of the initial B-70 production version.  Note test aircraft routinely exceeded Mach 3 and approached 80,000 feet.

XB-70B_Valkyrie_(AV_3)_SAC_-_1_May_1963

Comments

1. Bill D. - August 24, 2014

Not sure I remember much about a nuke-u-lar plane. We got the xb-70 the same year the beatles showed up on our shores.
I sure enjoy these FLF blogs. Took me a sec to figure out that FSU had nothing to do with a Florida college, but the Former S.U.


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