Good thing this didn’t happen on that Air Force One photo shoot…

Remember that recent, ill-timed Air Force One photo shoot that brought understandable panic to Manhattan along with ample egg on Obama’s face?  Well, while it was a horrendous public relations disaster, it wasn’t an actual disaster like, say, a little known photo-session-gone-wrong on June 8, 1966.  On that day, a General Electric-commissioned photo shoot of 5 planes  – all using GE manufactured engines – took flight and established a tight formation over the Mojave Desert.  What happened next?  Utter disaster.

The formation included 4 fighters and one long-range experimental nuclear bomber, the XB-70 Valkyrie. The XB-70 was a monstrous relic of Cold War technology that would have provided an efficient high-altitude, long range option to the Air Force in the event of nuclear war.  Eventually, with the advent of extremely precise ground-based anti-aircraft missile defense systems, manned aircraft like the XB-70 were deemed obsolete and eventually replaced by intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile networks.

Before that happened, though, June 8th happened.  The XB-70’s massive wing structure created extremely powerful wake turbulence; tornado-like air currents that, in the XB-70’s case, sucked anything into its air-space that was close enough (Mega Maid anyone?).  Unfortunately, NASA Chief Test Pilot Joe Walker, flying a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter to the immediate right of the XB-70, crossed the safety threshold and was subsequently sucked into the bomber’s space where his plane rolled over the top of the bomber, skidded across both of the Valkyrie’s vertical stabilizers (ripping them off) and exploded upon striking the XB-70’s left wing.  Rudderless and irrevocably damaged, the bomber went into a flat spin and plummeted to its fate on the desert floor with only one of its two pilots making it out alive.  Walker perished as well.

Since this happened during a promotional photo shoot, the extraordinary sequence of events was captured on film (click on photos to enlarge)…



03 (blue arrow indicates Walker's F-104 immediately before collision)

04 (immediately after collision)



07 (note missing stabalizers, damaged left wing)



10 (dive/spin begin)







Further stuff:

NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center’s collision feature

Absolute Astronomy’s Wake Turbulence page

Parts 1-5 of Discovery Channel’s XB-70 documentary

NASA wind tunnel investigations of the crash

The Smoking Cupcake, January 2010


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