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An Up-Close Look at America's Forgotten Supersonic Bomber

The XB-70 Valkyrie was a remarkable machine that was obsolete before its first flight.

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Geoffrey Morrison

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xb-70-valkyrie-1-of-24
1 of 31 National Archives

North American XB-70 Valkyrie

This is the North American XB-70 Valkyrie, one of the largest and fastest supersonic aircraft ever built. As cutting edge as its technology was, it was obsolete before it ever flew. 

Scroll through to learn more about this amazing aircraft and its history.

Bottom up view of the XB70
2 of 31 USAF

Higher and faster

The Valkyrie was born in era when it was thought that the best way to penetrate enemy airspace was to fly higher and faster than interceptor aircraft.

Design mock of what became the XB70 Valkyrie
3 of 31 National Archives

North American Aviation

The Air Force wanted an aircraft with the speed of the supersonic B-58 Hustler, but a bomb load closer to the huge B-52 Stratofortress. North American Aviation won the design competition.

Undercarriage view of a US Air Force XB70 Valkyrie
4 of 31 AFMC Office of History

Supersonic

Top speed was Mach 3.1, or about 2,056 mph at over 70,000 feet. Few aircraft, even today, could keep up with the XB-70.

XB70 Valkyrie with afterburners engaged
5 of 31 NASA

Burn

The XB-70 used afterburners to reach its top speed. Afterburners are highly inefficient at low speeds, but they're excellent at Mach 3. 

XB70 Valkyrie
6 of 31 NASA

Range

The XB-70 had a range of more than 4,000 miles. Aerial refueling was planned, but the project never got that far.

XB70 Valkyrie midflight with blue sky and mountains in the background
7 of 31 USAF

Wings

Part of the XB-70's supersonic cruise efficiency came from its adjustable wingtips, which tilted down to let the Valkyrie sit on its own shockwave. This increased lift and helped reduce drag.

XB70 initial cockpit design
8 of 31 NASA

Crew of 4

The initial design was for a pilot, co-pilot, navigator and bombardier. The latter two positions were eliminated when it transitioned to a research aircraft.

A grounded XB70 Valkyrie with NASA logo
9 of 31 NASA

A Different Era

As modern, futuristic even, as the aircraft looks, check out the cars in the background. The car in-between the two trucks looks like a 1953 Ford. On the left is a Ford Country Squire from about 1968.

Closeup of XB70 cockpit
10 of 31 NMUSAF/Ken LaRock

Cockpit

There are tons of dials and levers to control this six-engine supersonic machine.

Pilot seat of an XB70 Valkyrie
11 of 31 NMUSAF/Ken LaRock

Pilot's position

During its short career, only seven people flew the XB-70.

Closeup of XB70 wingtip controls
12 of 31 NMUSAF/Ken LaRock

Wingtip controls

Here's a closer look at the wingtip controls.

Aft look XB70 Valkyrie
13 of 31 NMUSAF

Looking aft

This is where the navigator and bombardier positions would have been. Behind the camera is the cockpit.

NASA logo on XB70
14 of 31 NASA

From B to X

President John F. Kennedy canceled the B-70 program in 1961. By that point, the USSR had perfected supersonic surface-to-air missiles that could reach the high-flying XB-70. Two prototype aircraft were given to NASA for testing in the development of larger, supersonic aircraft.

NASA XB70 mid-takeoff
15 of 31 NASA

Supersonic tester

NASA flew the XB-70 for just over four years. Here it takes off with a TB-58 chase plane, the trainer variant of the B-58 Hustler. The Hustler was one of the fastest aircraft in the world at the time, and even it couldn't keep up with the XB-70.

As the Valkyrie would fly its test route, the Hustler "cut the corners" to catch back up and fly with the XB-70 until it once again pulled away.

The existing XB70, top down view
16 of 31 USAF

Two 70s

The first XB-70 built had a few issues that led to instability at high speed. These were fixed with the second aircraft built. The majority of Mach 3 test flights were performed by the second XB-70.

XB70 drag chutes
17 of 31 NASA

Drag chutes

Three drag chutes were used to slow the XB-70 down when landing. They were stored in the upper fuselage, just ahead of the engines. 

Artistic rendition of XB70 as launch platform
18 of 31 AFMC Office of History

Unrealized future

The Air Force and North American had grand ideas for the potential of a huge and fast aircraft. Here is an artist's idea for using the XB-70 as a launch platform for orbital and sub-orbital spacecraft.

Artist rendering of XB70 as Minuteman II launch platform
19 of 31 AFMC Office of History

Nuclear missile launcher

In this version, a lightly modified XB-70 would launch a Minuteman II missile. Typically, these were meant to be launched from fortified bunkers in the Midwest.

XB70 transport mockup
20 of 31 AFMC Office of History

SST

Much of the XB-70's NASA testing was to study the possibility of an American-made supersonic transport (SST) to compete with the Anglo-French Concorde and Soviet Tu-144. North American pushed hard for its design, going so far as to add fake windows to an XB-70 during one maintenance period.

Five aircraft, including the XB70, flying in formation minutes before the 1966 fatal collision
21 of 31 NASA

Tragedy

This picture, part of a 1966 photoshoot requested by GE, which made the engines for all five aircraft, was taken moments before a fatal midair collision. The orange-tailed F-104 drifted too close to the XB-70's right wingtip, rolled up and over, taking out both of the Valkyrie's vertical stabilizers and exploding in the process. 

The F-104 pilot, Joe Walker, was killed instantly. The XB-70 flew for a few more seconds before entering an unrecoverable roll. Pilot Al White was able to eject and survived. Co-pilot Carl Cross could not and was killed. 

XB70 retirement landing
22 of 31 USAF

Retirement

After the crash of the second and more capable XB-70, the original was put back in service for a few years. Lacking the performance of its sister aircraft, it was soon retired. Its last flight on Feb. 4, 1969, was to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. It was then towed on public streets to the National Museum of the US Air Force.

XB70 dwarfing other museum aircraft
23 of 31 NMUSAF/Ken LaRock

Huge

It's easy to see here how huge the XB-70 is, compared to other supersonic and experimental aircraft. 

XB70 canards
24 of 31 NMUSAF/Ty Greenlees

Big ears

The canards, the small wings just aft of the cockpit, helped maintain control of the huge airframe. Below, the sharp air intakes helped create the shockwave crucial for compression lift.

XB70 intake walls
25 of 31 NMUSAF/Ty Greenlees

Adjustable

Not only were the intake's interior walls variable to alter the shockwave at speed, but also the walls were porous to vent turbulent air and help ensure the engines got smooth, supersonic air.

Side view of XB70 on exhibit
26 of 31 Geoff Morrison/CNET

Super-supersonic club

On the lower left is one of the aircraft used for research after the XB-70 was retired: a Lockheed YF-12.

Close-up of XB70's edges at NMUSAF
27 of 31 Geoff Morrison/CNET

Sharp edges

The lines of the XB-70 are remarkably thin, sharp and straight. Here it looms over a Convair XF-92A at the National Museum of the US Air Force. It was an early delta-wing research aircraft that first flew in 1948.

Close-up of six turbojets
28 of 31 Geoff Morrison/CNET

Big push

The XB-70 featured six General Electric YJ93-GE-3 turbojet engines that provided 28,000 pounds of thrust each.

Side view of Martin X-24B
29 of 31 Geoff Morrison/CNET

Lifting bodies

The use of compression lift on the XB-70 led to research on lifting-body aircraft, like the Martin X-24B here.

XB-70 Valkyrie museum side view
30 of 31 Geoff Morrison/CNET

X united

Check out more photos of the XB-70, along with dozens of other incredible aircraft, over at Touring the Ultimate Aviation Museum: The National Museum of the United States Air Force.

xb70 takeoff with afterburners
31 of 31 AFMC Office of History

Into the sunset

To learn more about this amazing aircraft, read our full story: Last flight of the Valkyrie: A Closer Look at the Forgotten Mach 3 XB-70 Superbomber.

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