XB-70/F-104 Midair Collision



XB-70 Air Vehicle 2 in Flight Over the Mojave Desert


On 8 June, 1966, one of aviation's most tragic accidents occured in the skies over the Mojave Desert. After an early morning flight test sortie in XB-70 Air Vehicle #2 (AV/2), pilots Al White and Major Carl Cross rendezvoused with a flight of four fighter-type aircraft and a Lear Jet. The idea was to group the fighters in formation around the XB-70 while photographers aboard the Lear Jet documented the event. All five aircraft were powered by General Electric engines, and the photos were to be used in GE advertising.

After over forty minutes of formation photo work, disaster struck. One of the fighters, a Lockheed/NASA F-104 flown by NASA chief test pilot Joe Walker, moved too close to the XB-70 ultimately resulting in a collision. The F-104 (NASA serial number 013) was caught in the XB-70's wing tip vortices, and then flipped over onto the top of the massive bomber. Joe Walker was killed instantly as the XB-70's twin vertical tails were torn away. The F-104 exploded and fell to Earth in at least three pieces. The crew of the XB-70, initially unaware of the collision, continued in straight and level flight for 16 seconds, eventually to enter a unrecoverable flat spin. Al White ejected in the final few seconds, but tragically, Major Cross lost his life when the XB-70 impacted the ground. The pieces of Walker's F-104 came to rest nearly six kilometers to the north. In a matter of seconds, two brave men and two valuable aircraft had been lost.

Thirty two years later, the WMAA team travelled to the Mojave in an attempt to re-locate the crash sites. The research we had conducted prior to the trip paid off, and we were able to locate the impact sites of both aircraft. The majority of the wreckage had been removed by the Air Force shortly after the accident. We knew from previous experience that the most could expect to find would be small areas devoid of plant life, and perhaps a few small fragments of the airplanes.

Two trips to the area provided us with the results we looking for. Surface mapping surveys were conducted and a few small artifacts were collected and cataloged. What we present to you here is a small sample of the information we gathered. As we continue our investigation into this event, we will update this site with our findings.

For more information, see especially Steve Levin's Flight of the Valkyrie.

XB-70

The main crash site of the XB-70 is still relatively pristine, and a small cross commemorates the loss of Maj. Carl Cross.

This single artifact in and of itself tells the entire story of the XB-70 crash. Scarred by fire, this data plate not only displays the manufacturer's logo, but it almost certainly was originally attached to a flight test instrument - Indicative of the experiemental nature of this aircraft.


Artifacts up to 2 inches in size are still to be seen - the ground is littered with small bits of honeycomb and other fragments.

Recently we have undertaken survey work on the XB-70 site. A primary surface survey revealed the fantastic variety of materials used on this revolutionary aircraft. Archaeological interpretation of these specimens is complex and quite time consuming. As we identify and describe objects, we will update this site with images and findings. These artifacts are eventually destined for display in some of the finest museums and historical collections in the world.

This XB-70 engine displayed at March AFB revealed the source of some of the material seen above. Much of our work is done in this manner. Documentation may detail materials, structure, and layout, but it is difficult to identify small pieces in context even with such help. The color and texture of small artifacts is lost in the engineering drawings, and sometimes it is only by in-person comparison with known examples that we are able to make sense of the puzzle.

F-104

It is impossible to divorce the tragedy of the XB-70 from that of the F-104 flown by Joe Walker. This history is well-known, but even the artifacts themselves reveal the inseparable fate of both aircraft: XB-70 honeycomb found at the Walker site.

Lying several miles away, the crash site of the F-104 consists of two distinct areas: Cockpit and tail sections. A third, smaller site also exists, and this is where the F-104's nose cone fell to Earth. The cockpit and tail sections are surprisingly close together - within several hundred yards of each other.

Like the XB-70 crash site, a memorial cross has been erected at the site of the cockpit section. This site is characterized by many canopy pieces (both plexi and glass, including a multilayer composite that made up the forward center section of the F-104's canopy), metal framents, and electronic and mechanical pieces. There is very little evidence of fire, with melted pieces of relative rarity. Pieces showing zinc chromate paint are in abundance.

The translucent yellow artifacts were originally the laminating adhesive between two layers of plexiglass. This laminate made up the cockpit canopy sections on either side of the center glass composite (above). Upon exposure to air, this substance turns yellow as can be seen in this picture of an F-104 canopy at Planes of Fame museum in Chino, CA. Oxidation of the adhesive has set in at the edges of the panel. The rear sections of the canopy were thick, solid plexi, and do not show this effect.

As might be expected, the ground at the tail section impact site is littered with melted aluminum. An aluminum slag (present at many other crash sites, most notably that of the YB-49) is to be found, as are many scorched rocks. Some tubing and other metal fragments can be found, but generally the artifacts are very uniform in type. Very few painted or electronic pieces are in evidence.

This 1/4" thick piece of metal from the site of the tail section shows prominent fracture lines.

A variety of melts and fragments from the tail section.

A compressor blade, complete with serial number.


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