Remembering The XB-70


With new supersonic aircraft on the (somewhat distant) horizon and this week marking 17 years since Concorde made its last flight, the timing is right for the U.S. Air Force’s AFMC History & Heritage Program to publish its look back on the North American B-70. (Read the full story here.)

In the preamble, the report says, “Alternate concepts for the XB-70 ranged from cargo and personnel transport, supersonic tanker and reusable launch vehicle to name a few. Some topics have enjoyed brief coverage in previous publications, yet most of what you will find on the following pages came from the archives of the Air Force Materiel Command History Office, a research facility located at Wright-Patterson AFB. Our research revealed a variety of gems, many a simple mention or illustration in an obscure report while others came from archived materials supplied by the manufacturer. We hope you enjoy this glimpse into what could have been.”

Among the proposed programs: launching the RM-81 Agena rocket as a “recoverable booster,” using the B-70 to similarly launch lifting-body research vessels and even as a platform for air-launching a Minuteman II missile. The B-70 was also proposed as a new-generation transport carrying 80 passengers in a relatively luxurious 40-inch seat pitch or 107 passengers with 36 inches between the seats. Think about that the next time you’re jammed into the center seat of a high-density 737.

Two XB-70s were built and only one survives. It can be seen at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, near Dayton, OH.

Marc Cook
KITPLANES Editor in Chief Marc Cook has been in aviation journalism for more than 30 years. He is a 4000-hour instrument-rated, multi-engine pilot with experience in nearly 150 types. He’s completed two kit aircraft, an Aero Designs Pulsar XP and a Glasair Sportsman 2+2, and currently flies a 2002 GlaStar.

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    • Of course GE did. In fact, most companies do that sort of thing. But it was poor flying that caused the accident, not a “photo op”. GE flew in the first GP7200-powered Airbus A380 for us to tour (my company supplies services to GE.) No big deal if nothing goes wrong.
      I’m 45 minutes from WPAFB (used to work there) and, of course, the museum. Fabulous plane.

      • Thanks for proving my point. You can TRY but you can’t DENY:
        no photo op=no fatalities+no smoking hole.
        You capitalists can do whatever the hell you want with your own merchandise. When you inveigle military officers to let you play with taxpayer property for private gain and profit with so much risk that the wisest and most ethical of them object, you’ve crossed the line.

  1. This has to be one or my all time favorite airplanes. We got to see it up close in the old hangar before moving into the new space. What a marvel of engineering and creativity. One can only imagine the feeling of being thrust back into your seat as those 6 afterburners kicked in. You can really see the gull shape of the wings in this video. That is not very evident from the ground as it is so high above you. I find it hard to believe that this would become a passenger carrying aircraft though. A test bed is probably more appropriate.

  2. What a beautiful airplane! I remember when President Nixon canceled the program for the XB-70, although it was a difficult decision it made sense since the new Soviet technology made it venerable to make it through Russian air space. The crash of one of the XB-70’s was not the fault of the pilot or a flaw of the aircraft. An
    F-104 hit the plane on the right side causing the pilot to lose control. The pilots of the XB-70 survived but the pilot of the F-104, unfortunately, did not.

    • There was no sharper NASA test pilot than Joe Walker, the pilot of the ill-fated F-104. However, that didn’t make Joe an expert on the aerodynamics of the XB-70. Obviously, there weren’t any XB-70 experts in the photo plane, either.

      I had lunch with Joe at Edwards several years before this tragedy. Super sharp and super nice. He was Neil Armstrong’s boss at the time.

    • Only one of the two XB-70 crew survived. He was unable to eject due to the huge forces up front of the airplane as it spun into the desert.

  3. I was lucky enough to have Al White as a good friend. He was the only survivor of the mid-air collision between the F-104 and the XB-70. Al was seriously injured, copilot Carl Cross did not get out of the airplane as it went through extreme gyrations after losing most of its vertical stabilizers in the collision.
    The project was incredible. They took that airplane supersonic during something like its third flight. White hand-flew the airplane at 70,000 feet and Mach 3 while the copilot had his hands full operating the manual “ramps” on the engine intakes to keep the airflow through the engines at a rate they could handle.
    Some years ago, after Al had written a book about his experiences with the XB-70 (and his time as a combat and test pilot), I wrote a column about him for AVweb:
    He was an extraordinary man and some of my most valued memories are of times I spent talking with him.

  4. I was fortunate to see the B-70 fly before the project was cancelled. It appeared at an air show at the Carswell AFB in Ft. Worth Texas when I was in high school. A friend’s dad was in the Air Force Reserve and managed to get us onto the base to see the plane up close. The show was not open to the general public. At the end of the day, the plane took off to return to California. They were using a B-58 Hustler as a chase plane, which had taken off and circled around to observe the B-70 as it took off. When the Valkirie lit off its afterburners, it shot down the runway and lifted off with a magnificent, ear shattering roar. Within seconds, it caught up with the B-58 and passed it by as it turned westward. Something I will never forget. To add icing to the cake, as we were walking back toward the parking lot, we came around the side of a hangar with the big doors just slightly open. Inside, was an SR-71 Blackbird, which at the time, did not officially exist. Two teenage boys couldn’t resist running inside to investigate the alien looking craft as my friend’s dad nervously said he didn’t think we should be in there. It was quite a day!

  5. I served in uniform at Edwards for 15.5 years plus 12 more as a contractor on a big black airplane. As a young kid growing up in Chicago circa 1960, I remember reading about the X-1 program and thinking that — surely — Edwards must be some magical sort of place. Little did I know I’d BE there in just 12 years time and living the dream. Edwards AFB is all that I thought it was … and more. During my more than 25 years associated with it, I got to experience some mighty nifty programs. And before my time there, I worked the B-58A at Little Rock. So watching the B-58 chase the XB-70 is special to me. And I got to know Fitz Fulton after he retired a third time and kept his C-172 at Mojave. Great guy who’s demeanor belied what he did for a living. Emil Sturmthal was the pilot of the XB-70 that went to Wright Patterson and the Museum. Another acquaintance.

    There’s a book written about the ‘inside’ stories of Edwards … “Flight Testing at Edwards … Flight Test Engineer’s Stories.” It’s written Readers Digest style with short stories written by various engineers. The ‘Golden Years’ at Edwards are considered to be just after WWII until 1975. After VietNam ended, everything became more formal, organized and mundane. Prior to that, it was the wild west of aeronautics. Likely played a part in the XB-70 crash ?? Circa 1984, I discovered that Chuck Yeager’s Son worked for me so I pumped him for stories. What I heard was amazing. These days, the place is so PC that it’s disappointing. Still … Edwards IS the center of the flight testing universe. A new Flight Test Historical Museum is being built on the Base and should be a fitting place to see artifacts and history of the past. I’m sure the XB-70 will be covered.

    Here’s just one topic. During flight testing of the B-58, there was a need to fly the airplane at extreme aft CG to determine handling qualities. There was a fear that if the tail scraped, the aft tank might leak and catch fire. An engineer I knew suggested capping that tank off and filling it with water … and that’s exactly what they did. OR … did ya’ll know that they actually drugged a bear and ejected it out of a B-58 ejection capsule? Later, some crazy Sr NCO did the same thing. THAT’s the kind of thing that went on at the Base back in the golden years.

    Those of you that “know” Edwards may not know that the two large hangars adjacent to the test pilot school were actually moved there on a purpose built railroad track from their original positions at South Base when the ‘new’ Edwards was built in the early 50’s. The large B-2 hangar that now sits at South Base actually sits on the same location. I have a picture of the XY-49 sitting in front of those two hangars before they were moved.

    BTW, John M. I earned most of my flight ratings at Beale AFB in NoCal. Can you imagine a young Sgt flying a C-150 in the pattern w/ SR-71’s? I DID just that 50 years ago!