XB-70 11/9/22

Memories with Richard Bleil

The main base of the Air Force is Wight Patterson Air Force Base in the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio.  As such, they have a fabulous air force museum, perhaps one of the best in the world.  It houses Apollo capsules that have been to the moon, the bomber that delivered the atomic bomb to Nagasaki, and the world’s first supersonic bomber.  The North American XB-70 was considered to be a “lifting surface” plane, flat on the bottom with six powerful jet engines providing the power. 

She is gorgeous.  These days she’s been relegated to one of the “ancillary” buildings requiring a shuttle bus ride across the base from the main museum hanger to see it.  When I was a kid, though, she was on the tarmac.  You would walk past her from the parking area to the main building, gleaming white in the sunshine and always a stunning craft.  The wingtips were out for sub-sonic flight but would bend down for additional stability at supersonic speeds.  Her design was very much the foundation for the Concord, except that her nose didn’t bend down.  The pilots who flew her fell in love with her handling and maneuverability.  Apparently, she flew like a dream.  Two were built, but in a promotional photograph of the military craft by North American, a fighter became caught up in the wake of the XB-70 and flew into one of the tail fins.  Even without an engine and missing a tail fin, the XB-70 (“Valkyrie”) continued to fly level and straight for several miles before finally bursting into flames and exploding. 

The first flight of the Valkyrie was in 1964, and the Air Force had signed a contract for the bombers.  Unfortunately, at the same time, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) were being developed.  The air force put so much stock into these heartless devices that the decision was made that they could do everything that the Air Force needed without putting the lives of bomber pilots and crew in danger.  As such, the Air Force canceled the contract in its entirety.  Roughly twenty years later, the Air Force rolled out their fist supersonic bomber the B-1. 

The last time I saw the XB-70, she was in the main hanger at the Air Force Museum.  It’s an amazing museum, actually, with some of the oddest planes devised.  It has one of the first German jet fighters, which, curiously enough, ran on coal.  Germany was so low on oil at the time that they had developed a way to grind goal so finely that it flowed like oil.  A tiny little fighter is there, designed to be held by hook in the belly of bombers, so when the bombers were outside of fighter range for support, they would lower these planes when attacked.  They were incredibly maneuverable and did quite well, but it was too difficult getting it back into the bomber because it was too difficult to hit the hook correctly, and since they didn’t have landing gears (to save weight and space) they couldn’t land on the ground. 

While looking at planes, suddenly one realizes that they have been walking underneath the wing of a tremendous Superfortress bomber, a true monster of a plane.  Jammed back in the corner of the hanger, under the Superfortress, safe from the elements but dwarfed and losing its glory was the Valkyrie. 

I was almost permitted to see the cockpit of the XB-70.  One of my students was in the air force and worked at the museum, and on learning of my infatuation with the plane, she spoke with her CO who said that he would let me onto the plane.  Sadly, we never did coordinate the visit. 

The ingenuity of technology people has developed in order to destroy and kill one another is quite impressive, sadly.  It’s a paradox.  The second law of thermodynamics tells us that it’s far easier to destroy than it is to create.  Given time, everything falls to disorder and chaos, so destroying things does really nothing but to speed up the inevitable.  And yet the intricacies and engineering involved in building a bomber is very impressive itself. 

Today I have a model of the XB-70.  I’ve not put it together, and I’m not sure if I will, but I fear that may be the closest I’ll get to the Valkyrie again.  I don’t get back to Ohio anymore and frankly don’t expect to do so again soon, and even if I did, I’m not sure I’d get to the Air Force Museum.  But what delightful childhood memories I have of my beautiful supersonic bomber.  I hope many generations of kids will be able to continue to enjoy and be inspired by her.

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