Posts Tagged ‘North American XB-70 Valkyrie’

The MiG-25 Foxbat was the Soviet Union’s response to the North American XB-70 Valkyrie.  The Valkyrie, an awesome, super-sized, six-engined beauty, was designed as a high-altitude Mach-3 bomber that could carry a large payload deep into enemy territory.  Unfortunately, North American’s masterpiece also came with a super-sized price tag, one that the U.S. military was unwilling to pay, and the Valkyrie never entered production.

But the potential of the XB-70 was enough to make the Foxbat a reality.  It was a high-flying, high-speed interceptor, capable of speeds well over twice the speed of sound.  It’s job was to make sure that the XB-70 didn’t reach its target, and it didn’t return home to come back another day.

When the U.S. military first saw the MiG-25 in the late 1960’s (at a Russian air show), they were stunned.  The Foxbat appeared to be a fighter of awesome performance, beyond anything in the U.S. inventory.  If there was any good news out of the “reveal”, it was that the Air Force set immediately to work and, with the help of McDonnell-Douglas, created the F-15 Eagle, the West’s finest air superiority fighter.

The Soviets continued building Foxbats, and nearly 1,200 entered service.  But during the Cold War era, only one of them really mattered to NATO, and that was the one flown by Soviet Air Force Lt. Viktor Belenko on September 6, 1976.  It was his aircraft that landed at a Japanese airfield (on the island of Hokkaido) when the officer defected from the Soviet Union.

Air Force engineers pounced on the aircraft like flies on your picnic goodies.  And like years before, they came away from the Foxbat stunned…but for entirely different reasons.  As it turned out, the Foxbat had no fighter capability to speak of.  It was massively heavy, weighing in at more than 30 tons unarmed.  It couldn’t pull more than 4.5g’s in a turn (Eagles were capable of 9g’s).  And its electronics were very outdated.  The Foxbat was a fairly poor-quality airframe built around two massively powerful engines.  It was a drag racer, not a fighter.

It reminds me of that commercial that’s currently playing on TV with the snake that tries to frighten the rabbit by attaching a baby rattle to its tail…this commercial.  It sounds all threatening and everything, but in reality, it’s a big joke.  And that was kind of the MiG-25’s story.

Truth be told, there were some things the Foxbat could do very well, like reconnaissance and spy work.  And with electronics upgrades to carry the more advanced Soviet missiles, it was a pretty good interceptor.  But as the U.S. could already attest, the interceptor role was a theoretical mission that didn’t play out well in real life.  Interceptors still needed to be able to fight other airplanes in close combat…they needed to be fighters.

Lt. Belenko was granted asylum, (I believe) given U.S. citizenship, and received a nice pension from the U.S. government.  The MiG-25 was studied (and kind of snickered at) by the U.S. and then sent back to the Soviet Union…in a bunch of crates.

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It’s an airplane that spent most of its life shrouded in secrecy.  The missions it flew were even more top secret.  It leaked fuel like a sieve when it sat on the ground, but it could tear through the air!!  It flew faster than the rotational velocity of the earth, giving it the appearance of out-pacing the sun.  You could eat breakfast in New York City, fly to LA in this plane, and eat another breakfast earlier (time-wise) than you ate in New York.  At full chat, this airplane covered 33 miles a minute, making it faster than the bullet fired from a 30-06 rifle.

That’s the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in a nutshell.  Developed by Kelly Johnson’s “Skunk Works”, the SR-71 was another in Lockheed’s rather unconventional designs that just flat-out worked, such as the P-38 Lightning and U-2. Like the U-2, the Blackbird was designed for high-altitude reconnaissance.  Unlike the U-2, it was meant to fly at extremely high speed.

The designation “SR-71” is actually connected with another plane we’ve discussed:  the XB-70 Valkyrie (see?…70…71).  After its failure to reach full production, the Valkyrie was considered as a recon plane, but when Lockheed showed off its aircraft (called the A-12), the Air Force chose it, calling it the SR-71.

In order to fly so quickly, Lockheed used special engines.  At lower speeds, they operated like a standard turbojet engine.  But they became ramjets at extremely high speed, as the cone on the front of the engine would slide back, allowing air to pass into the engine.  When the air went around the cone, it was compressed, generating heat that, when combined with fuel and exploded, produced even more power.  It takes a scientist to fully understand it…and I’m not one of those.

The intense heat of air friction expanded the plane several inches as it flew (and heated the skin to well over 500°F), so at rest, the panels were gapped slightly, sort of like expansion joints on the Interstate.  The fuel cells were similar, so they leaked on the ground.  The plane would take off and, after sufficiently warming up the skin (and sealing the tanks), the Blackbird would refuel for its missions.

The plane was packed full of cameras and sensors and recorders for use in its spy work, which it did for nearly 25 years.  From its first test flight on December 22, 1964 until its final retirement in 1998, the SR-71 was the primary spy plane of the United States.  Only 32 were built (the tooling was destroyed in 1968).  12 were lost in accidents, but only 1 crew member perished.

Though now retired, the Blackbird’s mission is still important.  Satellites provide good coverage, but their regular orbits provide the enemy a “satellite schedule”.  Aircraft provide additional, on-the-spot coverage for which the enemy cannot plan.

Maybe the SR-71’s successor is already flying…maybe it’s the Lockheed Aurora…maybe it’s not.  Whatever the case, that successor has a most formidable reputation to uphold.

Recommended Reading:  SR-71 Revealed:  The Inside Story – Ok, this is one I don’t have in the inventory, but is it too late to get it on my Christmas list?

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It’s nice to be back home after an exhausting “vacation”.  A missed flight, lost luggage, and some doofus who dinged up our rental car (thank God for the $40 we spent on insurance) made the down time more stressful, but our time in Seattle was still pretty good.

As I get back into the swing of writing, I want to take to the skies again.  Today’s History Lesson actually has, as its roots, a topic I covered back in June: North American’s XB-70 Valkyrie.  The Valkyrie, designed as a super-fast, high-flying bomber, succeeded at both.  But its cost, as well as Soviet advances in missile technology, put paid to the B-70’s chances of entering production.

From the Soviet perspective, however, the B-70 was a huge threat to their security.  Yeah, they had missile technology, but with massed high-altitude bombers attacking at Mach 3, there was a sizeable risk that the bombers would reach their targets.  Their response?  The MiG-25 Foxbat.  The Foxbat was the ultimate expression of the Cold War concept of the Interceptor – a concept which emphasized raw speed and standoff air-to-air missile attack rather than maneuverability.  The U.S. built an entire series of interceptors in the late 50’s and 60’s culminating in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, though none could match the straight-line speed of the Soviet mark.

The U.S. saw the Foxbat, mistook it for a fighter of awesome performance, and went to the drawing board.  What came out of the fire was also from McDonnell Douglas (today part of Boeing) and was christened the F-15 Eagle.  You can see some of the Foxbat in the Eagle, but similarities end there.  The Foxbat was an interceptor and the Eagle was designed from the outset as a dogfighter.  So it was given a gun (the first fighter since the F-100 to have one)…the M61A1 cannon.  Standoff capability was added with an advanced Hughes radar suite and short- and medium-range missiles.  Finally, because air superiority was crucial, an emphasis was placed on low wing loading and powerful engines.

The Eagle, first flown on July 27, 1972, would be extensively tested, delivered in 1974, and enter front-line service in 1976 as the premier fighter of its day.  It could continue its front-line duties for another 15 years.  My love for aircraft in general, and the ’15 in particular, means we’re 100% sure to discuss this plane again as its various milestones show up on the calendar.

As a side note, our son commissioned into the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant at Fort Lewis on Friday morning (hence our trip out West).  It’s been wonderful to watch him grow and mature into a leader.  We’re so proud of you!!

Recommended Reading: Storm Over Iraq – Air Power and the Gulf War – The F-15, like so many of our weapon systems, was untested until this conflict.  The F-15, like so many of our weapon systems, passed with flying colors.

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I think the North American XB-70 Valkyrie is one of the coolest airplanes to never enter military service.  First flown in 1964, the aircraft had its roots in design and feasibility studies from the mid 1950’s.  At that time, the Strategic Air Command had Boeing’s B-52 Stratofortress as its primary heavy bomber.  It carried an enormous payload for long distances, but it was a slow subsonic aircraft.  SAC also had Convair’s B-58 Hustler coming online (it entered service in 1960), and it was a relatively small, supersonic “dash-and-blast” bomber.  It set all kinds of speed records in its day, but didn’t have good range or payload capacity.

The XB-70 was designed to be the best of both, combining Mach 3 speed with huge range and payload capacity.  North American Aviation, already famous for the P-51 Mustang (and the F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre), was selected for the project.  Every possible bit of technology was utilized to make the monstrous B-70 a reality, but the neatest was the use of compression lift.  Designers built the outer wingtips to tilt down at supersonic speeds, which trapped the shock waves between the wingtips and engine nacelle, providing even more lift.

The first prototype was beset with problems, mostly due to the advanced designs being implemented and exotic materials being used, but many of them were fixed in the 2nd prototype, which first flew in 1965.  And fly it did!!  In 1966, it flew at Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound) on several occasions, maintaining that speed on May 19th for more than 30 minutes.  The XB-70 achieved its top speed of Mach 3.05 on June 6th.

But just two days later, on June 8, 1966, disaster struck.  The XB-70 was flying in close formation with several other planes in a photoshoot for General Electric (the Valkyrie used six massive GE engines in a “six-pack” configuration), when an F-104 Starfighter flying behind it rolled over the top of bomber, clipping its wing and destroying the rudders.  The 104 exploded (killing its pilot) and the XB-70 spun out of control and crashed, and while the pilot was able to eject, the co-pilot could not and was killed as well.  The photo to the left was taken just after the mid-air collision.

But it was the mid-60s now, and missile technology had advanced to the point that even a bomber flying at 70,000 feet could be shot down, and the B-70’s prodigous cost couldn’t be justified.  The program was cancelled with just the one aircraft (prototype 1) remaining.  It flew tests for NASA for several years and was then retired.

I think the XB-70 Valkyrie was, without question, one of the most beautiful and unique aircraft ever to lift off.  If you ever get a chance, see the remaining XB-70 at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio.  I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed.

Recommended Reading: North American XB-70 Valkyrie – A Photo Chronicle – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve leafed through my copy.  This plane continues to fascinate me.

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