On June 8, 1966, a General Electric Aerial Publicity Photo Shoot was arranged for its shareholders 17 Miles northeast of Barstow, California (near Edwards Airbase). A formation flight featuring 5 jets that use General Electric centered on the XB-70, flanked by a T-38A, F-4B, Walker’s F-104N (orange tail), and a YF-5A took place. The photo chase aircraft that day was a Learjet owned by singer Frank Sinatra
Flight Research Center chief pilot Joe Walker, was flying one of the center’s F-104s just off the Valkyrie’s right wing.
Without warning, Walker’s F-104 was suddenly drawn in toward the bomber. His aircraft clipped the right wing tip, rolled up and over, struck the XB-70’s right vertical fin, sheered off most of the left vertical fin, and exploded into a ball of fire as it glanced off the left wing. Walker died instantly.
“Mid-air! Mid-air! Mid-air!” yelled one of the chase pilots over his radio.
Here is a video of the XB-70 Valkyrie Mid-air collision with NASA F-104N Starfighter
For 16 seconds the XB-70 continued to fly straight and level. Then the experimental bomber began a slow roll into an inverted spiral; portions of a wing broke away and fuel began streaming from the stricken aircraft.
“Eject! Eject! Eject!” yelled another chase pilot, as the airplane began falling away toward the hills north of Barstow, Calif. North American Aviation pilot Al White managed to eject, although he was severely injured in the process. Air Force Maj. Carl Cross could not get out, however, and died in the crash.
The crash investigation pointed to the wake vortex of the XB-70’s wingtips as the reason for the F-104’s sudden rollover and into the bomber. Not much was understood about wake vortices at the time, although they are now recognized as very powerful and potentially deadly mini-tornados trailing from an aircraft’s wingtips. Regardless of the cause, in less than two minutes, the Air Force and NASA had lost two aircraft and, much worse, two talented test pilots.
The XB-70 Valkyrie, piloted by North American test pilot Major Carl Cross and Air Force pilot Colonel Al White, performed a series of speed calibration runs including one supersonic speed run earlier. Following the flight data and calibration test runs the Valkyrie joins up with the photo shoot formation as they are assembled by radar vector over the Edwards test range.
The photo-op formation has converged, slowly moving into a wedge formation of smaller aircraft trailing off the left and right wingtips of the giant XB-70. Left-wing, white, two-seat Northrop T-38A Talon trainer (#59-1601) piloted by USAF Capt. Pete Hoag with Col. Joe Cotton as backseater; left slot off the XB-70’s wingtip, A U.S. Navy McDonnell-Douglas F-4B Phantom II (#150993) piloted by Navy Commander Jerome P. Skyrud with radar intercept officer E.J. Black sitting back seat of the Phantom II; Then the XB-70; Joe Walker’s civilian registered NASA F-104N Starfighter (N813NA) is right wing off the XB-70; then a pretty Northrop YF-5A (59-4898) single-seat fighter flown by GE test pilot John M. Fritz.
As the aircraft prepares to separate Walker’s controls suddenly feel vague and mushy, as though the plane’s control surfaces have been taken over by some greater force. He is trapped in the swirling vortices tumbling at cyclonic speed off the lowered wingtips of the XB-70.
The needle nose F-104 bucks upward, there is a thud, another buck, and the plane’s nose rears violently upward like a bronco hurling its rider. Walker likely slams his stick forward and right, but it is too late. Physics has taken over. Trapped in the whirlpool hurricane of the wingtip vortices from the XB-70, the F-104 rolls inverted to the left, executing a snap roll with the XB-70 wingtip as its axis. Yaw control is lost, and in an instant, Walker is turn-styled sideways to the flight path. His body is slammed forward and right into the harness holding him in the ejection seat of the F-104N.
Walker has completely departed controlled flight as the inverted, now sideways F-104 sheets across the top of the XB-70’s wing, shearing off both of its twin tails, one of them decapitating the F-104 and killing Walker instantly as it slices through the cockpit. The boundary layer of air surrounding the XB-70 spits out the wreckage of the F-104 behind it, like trash swirling behind a speeding car. The dying F-104 cartwheels tail over the nose as a long pinwheel of yellow fire arcs behind it. It spins briefly sideways, wings ripping off, and tumbles to an unmarked desert grave 30,000 feet below.
Inside the XB-70 co-pilot Al White turns to Carl Cross and asks, “I wonder who got hit?” Sitting almost 200 feet in front of the place where Walker’s F-104N tore into the XB-70 White and Cross do not know they are hit too. They did not understand the radio traffic immediately after the collision.
“MIDAIR! MIDAIR!” Air Force T-38 pilot, Capt. Pete Hoag shouts over the radio.
“You got the verticals! This is Cotton, you got the verticals!—came off left and right! We’re staying with ya, no sweat, now you’re holding good, Al!” crackled in the T-38 back seater Col. Joe Cotton.
The two test pilots were in the cockpit of a T-38 trainer flying off the left wing of the new XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, aircraft number 62-0207. They just saw the civilian registered NASA F-104N Starfighter of pilot Joe Walker slide upside down across the top of the huge white bomber, shear off both its twin tails and skid sideways, then break in two, killing Walker instantly. Behind the XB-70 Walker’s F-104N tumbled end over end, a pinwheel of bright orange flame nearly six hundred feet long tracing its convulsive death spiral.
After 16 seconds of stable flight with its twin tails gone, physics and aerodynamics begin to enforce their ruthless laws on the XB-70. Al White has the instincts of a test pilot though, and without panic, he counteracts the roll by slamming the right, number six engine throttle to the firewall. Without its vertical stabilizers, the already tough-to-fly XB-70 is on its way to becoming a huge, white coffin.
The Learjet photo plane was still near the formation, despite the other pilots’ radio calls to “Get the Lear out of here!” Stunned photographers inside continue to shoot photos as the XB-70 rolls twice, then begins to Frisbee downward into the clouds cloaked in a growing mix of its own lethal fuel vapor spraying outward from the ruptured wing tanks. One spark of fire and the plane will become a fatal fireball.
Inside the mortally wounded XB-70, Al White and Carl Cross actuate their ejection systems. Al White functions well, yanking his ejector seat rearward into the capsule where he is able to slam his clamshell doors shut over the ejector seat, but not without a struggle that shatters his right arm in the closing door just before he is rocketed out of the plane.
Carl Cross has trouble. G-forces are preventing his rearward movement into the escape capsule, and they are building with every second as the XB-70’s spin accelerates. The seat retraction system is unable to overcome the accumulated centrifugal force of the spin and Cross is trapped forward in the cockpit with no way to escape as the altimeter unwinds.
“Chute! Chute! Good chute!” radios Capt. Pete Hoag from the pilot’s seat of the T-38 when he sees Al White’s parachute deploy. He never sees a ‘chute for Carl Cross.
Seconds later the XB-70’s crippled hulk pancakes flat into the desert at 35°3’47″N 117°1’27″W. Fire engulfs the wreckage on impact.
Two pilots, Carl Cross, and Joe Walker lose their lives. The XB-70, 62-0207, is destroyed in the crash.
In the subsequent crash investigation four officers are implicated in the circumstances surrounding the accident: Col. Joe Cotton, who was sitting back seat of the T-38 during the crash flight, was one. Albert M. Cates Director of Systems Tests at the Air Force Flight Test Center was another. Two public affairs and media officers at Edwards Air Force Base, Lt. Col. James G. Smith, and Chief of Media Relations Lt. Bill Campbell were included in the inquest for allowing the photo shoot to proceed.
The investigation would reveal that the photo shoot pressed on under continued pressure from General Electric’s advertising and marketing agency, BBD&O.
Al White, pilot of the XB-70 during the crash, went on to become the Manager of Flight Operations, Research, and Development for TWA Airlines. He accumulated over 8,500 hours of flight time in more than a hundred different aircraft and served as an expert witness in aircraft accident litigation. Until his death in 2006, he lived in the aviation Mecca of Tucson, Arizona.