The XB-70 Valkyrie streaked through the skies near three times the speed of sound in flight tests 70,000 feet above the California desert in the 1960s.
The massive, white jet emerged under gray skies for the first time Tuesday in over a decade at a speed of 5 mph on a 1.3-mile road trip to its new home at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Daniel J. Kirk was one of roughly 100 people who faced cold winds and a light rain to see the exotic delta-winged bomber – the only one of its kind in the world — outside for the first time in years as the 230,000-pound plane was towed to a new $40.8 million museum hangar.
“It’s my favorite plane,” the 40-year-old Columbus man said, recalling spotting it outside the museum for the first time on a childhood visit. “It was the first thing you see when you drive up and I thought it was the coolest plane I’d ever seen.”
The six-engine jet with twin tail fins was pushed out of the museum’s Research and Development Gallery in a restricted access hangar, it’s home since 2002, to the new hangar at Wright-Patterson.
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The experimental bomber, branded with the tail code 20001, will be the centerpiece among research and development planes in a 225,000-square-foot expansion set to open next June, along with presidential and troop transport airplanes, spacecraft and rockets.
“We don’t move the XB-70 every day,” said museum director John “Jack” Hudson. “This is really a once in-a-lifetime experience that this happens.”
The futuristic jet is one of the most popular planes in the museum and judged among a holy grail of aircraft, according to museum curator Jeff Duford. The experimental bomber’s star ship-like appearance brings in visitors around the world, and drew spectators Tuesday as far away as the East Coast.
“This is one of the real gems of the collection,” Duford said. “We have a saying that we call pieces of the true cross and this is definitely pieces of the true cross. There’s no aircraft like the XB-70 in the world. …
“The fact is this looks like something that would have been in Star Trek, but it flew at Mach 3 two years before Star Trek even aired,” he said. “It was an incredibly advanced aircraft.”
Ironically, the plane was moved the same day the Air Force announced a winner in the competition to build a new long range strike bomber, the first in decades. “Serendipity,” Duford explained with a laugh on the coincidence of the timing.
The Air Force had two North American Aviation-built XB-70s, but one was destroyed after a mid-air collision in June 1966. During a photo shoot over the California desert, an F-104 Starfighter chase plane flying in formation struck the right wing of the Valkyrie, then careened through the giant plane’s twin vertical stabilizers and exploded. The XB-70 eventually lost control and spiraled into the earth. Two pilots were killed, and a third ejected out of the bomber but was seriously injured.
Donald L. Mallick flew an XB-70 as a NASA test pilot after the crash and piloted a TB-58 chase plane next to the surviving jet on its last flight from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to the museum in 1969.
The giant jet needed a lot of ground support to climb into the sky, he recalled in an email Tuesday.
“We did not want to land anywhere, except Wright-Pat,” said Mallick, 85, who lives near Lancaster, Calif. “We felt that if we did have to land somewhere other than the planned destination, the airplane might still be there.”
The first XB-70 assembled — the same one now at Wright-Patterson — had restrictions on how fast and high it could fly. Altitude was kept around 70,000 feet and the throttle was pulled back to a maximum of Mach 2.7, just under the top speed of Mach 3, because the honeycomb-like structure of steel and titanium underneath the skin of the plane would separate and fly off, the test pilot recalled.
Engineers had solved the problem on the second bomber, which could reach higher speeds and altitude. The plane could droop its wings up to 65 degrees to ride its own shock wave, much like a stone skipping on the water, to create more lift, Duford said.
“As a supersonic airplane traveling through space so quickly, it required a definite precision, not unlike other high speed planes,” Mallick remembered.
Flying the massive jet was an adjustment for the one-time naval aviator who sat in the cockpit of planes launched off high-powered catapults on aircraft carriers. The XB-70 was big and heavy and needed a long runway to take-off. Fully fueled, it weighed more than half a million pounds.
“Even with the 180,000 pounds of takeoff thrust, it took some distance to get the 550,000-pound airplane in flight,” he said.
The Air Force quashed the idea of building a fleet of the bombers because of the fear the plane would be vulnerable to high-reaching Soviet surface-to-air missiles, Duford said.
But the military and NASA valued the plane’s high speed and altitude reach to test the boundaries of a possible civilian supersonic transport. Even so, a supersonic airliner, unlike the Concorde built in Europe, was never assembled in the United States.