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Valkyrie: North American's Mach 3 Superbomber (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Walter J. Boyne
By Dennis R. Jenkins and Tony R. Landis
Specialty Press, North Branch, Minn., 2004

A new book by Dennis R. Jenkins and Tony R. Landis, Valkyrie: North American's Mach 3 Superbomber (Specialty Press, North Branch, Minn., 2004), clearly matches its subject matter in its elegance, its "performance" and its appearance, but unlike the fantastically advanced XB-70 Valkyrie, it is bargain-priced at $39.95. Its co-authors are veterans of the air and space engineering community as well as distinguished writers and photographers. Jenkins' Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System: The First 100 Missions is a classic worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.

If Pulitzers were awarded for aviation books, Valkyrie would surely be a contender, for it illuminates both the human and the technological side of the most ambitious American bomber of the 20th century. The authors were intimately familiar with the program, and were thus able to access the principal players, including test pilots Alvin S. White and Fitzhugh L. "Fitz" Fulton Jr., who have each written a foreword.

They begin with a digression, but an important one, covering the little known antecedent of the XB-70 program — the search for an atomic-powered aircraft. Landis' excellent line drawings are used throughout the book but are especially helpful in this chapter, with all the bizarre airframes and engines there are to describe.
The next chapter describes the incredible series of design proposals that ultimately led to the selection of a North American proposal. Boeing had for years had an almost proprietary hold on the American heavy bomber, and offered a series of amazingly varied designs, some of which seemingly originated not in Seattle but in Hollywood. But the second North American design was selected by the U.S. Air Force on December 23, 1957.

The North American entry was truly exotic, with large delta-shaped canard surfaces, as well as folding wingtips for directional stability at high speeds. It also utilized a new concept, compression lift. It is to Jenkins and Landis' credit that they can detail the complexities of the design in such readable prose, supplemented with superb drawings and photos.

Most readers will find the chapter covering the flight program (subtitled "Half a Million Pounds at Mach 3") the most absorbing. There was an enormous series of challenges to be overcome before the trouble-filled first flight of September 21, 1964. The authors then follow up with detailed accounts of successive flights, as the crew of test pilots edged their way to Mach 3. Each flight was filled with drama and danger, and each one expanded the test envelope. On October 14, 1965, White and Joe Cotton took the XB-70 to Mach 3 — making it the largest and heaviest air-breathing vehicle to fly so fast. After sufficient proving flights, it would do so routinely.

On June 8, 1966, the second XB-70 was involved in a midair collision with a Lockheed F-104 flown by Joe Walker. The planes were taking part in a photo shoot highlighting aircraft (XB-70, McDonnell F-4 and Northrop F-5A) using General Electric engines. The authors furnish a complete account of that tragic accident.

Sadly for bomber history, the XB-70 was overtaken by technological events (the development of surface-to-air missiles) and budgetary considerations. On January 31, 1967, a decision was made to transfer the entire $1.5 billion XB-70 program to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for research purposes.

The final chapter consists of an analysis of the military systems planned for use in the B-70 but never installed. These were fully as advanced as the airframe and engines, and many could conceivably have had applications in subsequent combat aircraft. The book concludes with seven extremely detailed appendices, including a superb index. Appendix C, "A Pilot's Perspective," by Al White, and Appendix D, "Lessons for a Supersonic Transport," by Fitz Fulton, are especially valuable reading.

The authors set themselves a monumental task in this book, and succeeded fully in bringing it off. Other authors could well use Valkyrie: North American's Mach 3 Superbomber as a benchmark for their own efforts.

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