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The Crash of the XB-70 Valkyrie

June 8, 1966

What was suppose to be a routine photo shoot turned to disaster. General Electric, the designer and manufacturer of the powerful engines of the XB-70, wanted a few promotional photographs featuring a "family photo" of the Air Force aircraft using GE engines.  It was simple and perfectly reasonable request from a colossal supporter of the military.  As the photo crew boarded their Learjet for the shoot, none aboard could have anticipated the outcome.

Just after the last shot of the day was taken, a Lockheed/NASA F-104N, flown by NASA chief test pilot Joseph Walker, was sucked into the jet vortex of the giant XB-70. The F-104N flipped over onto the top of the massive bomber, clipped off the bombers left tail section and turned into the massive fireball pictured here. If you look at the XB-70 in the upper left, you can see the left vertical stabilizer is missing.

The crew of the Valkyrie, initially unaware of the collision, continued in straight and level flight for 16 seconds. However, the aircraft entered into a unrecoverable flat spin.

 
The XB-70 continued down until it struck the desert floor. Al White ejected in the final few seconds, but unfortunately, Major Cross lost his life when the XB-70 impacted the ground.

After the crash, Air Force investigators comb through the wreckage looking for the flight recorder.

Statement by the President, Lyndon B. Johnson, on the Death of Test Pilots Joseph A. Walker and Carl S. Cross

 

Joe Walker and Major Cross gave their lives in advancing science and technology. Their deaths remind us how dependent we are on men of exceptional ability in the development of new vehicles in flight.

They died while training for demanding assignments in a new field of major national interest--research on supersonic transport flight. They added immeasurably to the progress this Nation is making in that effort.

I extend my deepest sympathies to their families.

 

   The statement was read by Bill D. Moyers, Special Assistant to the President, at his news conference at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, June 8, 1966, at the White House. It was not made public in the form of a White House press release.

Assigning Blame...

Four Air Force officers were charged with causing the crash. They were Colonel Joseph F. Cotton, the XB-70 test force director, and Albert M. Cates, director of systems test at Air Force Flight Test Center,  Lt Col James G. Smith, the director of information (soon to be public affairs), and Lt. Bill Campbell, the chief of media relations at Edwards.

According to Campbell, at the urging of a Texas congressman, and head of military appropriations, the Air Force convened a "collateral board" to find those responsible. Unfortunately, the man who was responsible, Joe Walker, perished in the mid-air.

So the Air Force had to find someone else to blame.

As Campbell recalled, the board was headed by a two-star improbably named Joseph Cody, the chief of staff of the Air Force Systems Command . He had a staff of about eight. All four of the accused had Air Force-appointed lawyers. Campbell was the only one to testify, the others taking the military version of the fifth. The four were charged with violating AF regulations saying if a picture was to be taken with possible national merit, the Secretary of the Air Force's Office of Information (now Public Affairs) would have to bless it.

Campbell states that if Walker not brought down the XB-70 the photo would have been pretty vanilla. Naturally, after the crash, the photo was pretty special. But the Air Force ("We take care of our own.") needed to hang someone and the four were the most available. 

Campbell testified that he LEARNED of the flight when a Major from the Los Angeles branch of SAF/OI called him on a Friday to see if his office wanted press to attend the formation flight, scheduled for Monday or Tuesday of the next week. Campbell stated that knew nothing of the "formation" aspect of the flight and asked his boss, Lt. Col. Jim Smith, if he knew anything. Smith did not, but put in a call to Colonel Joe Cotton, the XB-70 test force director. Cotton explained that, yes, there was a formation flight with an F-4, T-38, F-5, B-58 and F-104 scheduled, all GE-powered airframes (The B-58 broke on the day of the flight). BBD&O, the Public Relations firm for GE, had been bugging Cotton for such a photo op, and this flight was perfect as Major Carl Cross, recently having joined the test project, was taking his first ride, hence the max Mach number for much of the flight was .86, a speed the Lear photo chase jet could keep up with.

So Campbell's testimony was why should he have asked for SAF/OI approval when he had just learned of the flight from a SAF/OI representative? Campbell was exonerated. But the three others received a transfer (Cates), or letters of reprimand.

Interestingly enough, the Major who told Campbell of the flight showed up in his office during the trial. The Major was taking his family out for a visit to the AFFTC. The trial was on a break, but Campbell told him to stay where he was and reported to General Cody that the guy who told him about the flight was actually in Campbell's office! Cody called for a recess and then told him to send the Major on his way, as the court did not want to talk to him. In Campbell's opinion, the Air Force wanted to settle this matter at the lowest possible level.

Of further interest, Campbell's attorney contacted the Air Force Director of Information, then Brig. Gen. Eugene "Ben" LeBailley and asked him what he would have done had he known of the flight. The general sent a reply back that said, "I would have complied with AFR 190-10, AFR 190-12..." and a lot of other regulations, cementing Campbell's impression of "We take care of our own."

 

Several wing tunnel tests, using models of the XB-70, were conducted to study the effects of various configurations in the resulting spin after the mid-air collision.


The Crash Site Today
Click here to own a piece of the XB-70

From the air, it just looks like a clear spot in the desert. However, it doesn't take much imagination to see the resemblance of the spot to the shape of the XB-70 itself.

Below is a view of the crash site looking to the southwest.
If you look closely in the photo below you can see pieces of the XB-70
Below is a panoramic view looking at the crash site from the south. Click on the image for a high resolution photo.

Click here to own a piece of XB-70

 

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