Supersonic transport aircraft that surpassed Concorde in speed

(CNN) — Five years before Concorde’s first flight, another fantastic supersonic aircraft took to the skies and almost became the inspiration for an even faster passenger plane.

This was the XB-70 Valkyrie, an experimental aircraft developed for the United States Air Force. Its first flight 60 years ago in September 1964 ushered in a golden age for supersonic aircraft. The aircraft later reached a speed of just over 3,200 kilometers per hour, about 50% faster than Concorde.

“The overall design of the XB-70 was very beautiful,” says Tony Landis, historian for the Air Force Materiel Command in Dayton, Ohio. “To think that such a fascinating aircraft with its speed and altitude capabilities was created more than 65 years ago is difficult to comprehend in today’s artificial intelligence and computing environment.”

XB-70 Valkyrie

Five years before Concorde, an experimental supersonic aircraft, the XB-70, took to the skies. Credit: NASA/Divds

The XB-70 program was not without problems: as a military aircraft, it became obsolete before it was even launched, and its brief life was spoiled by a tragic accident. Even on scheduled flights everyone was worried, as all components of the aircraft were working at their limits.

However, its design has made it an icon of supersonic flight: “To this day, people stop to contemplate the Valkyrie standing majestically in the National Museum of the United States Air Force, admiring its size and shape.” Landis says. “Most people ask if it’s a new design, because they’ve never seen anything like it before.”

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Supersonic transport aircraft that surpassed Concorde in speed

NASA used a pre-production prototype of the XB-70 sonic triple bomber to research high speeds in the 1960s. Credit: NASA

The aircraft was born out of a competition between the then-major aerospace manufacturer Boeing and North American Aviation, which was selected by the Air Force in 1957 to develop a bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons at Mach 2 and an altitude of 60,000 feet.

However, the downing of an American U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960 led to a change from manned bombers to ballistic missiles, and in 1961 President Kennedy recognized that the future XB-70 had the potential to successfully penetrate enemy defenses. There was very little possibility. , As a result, as North American began manufacturing the aircraft, the focus of the program shifted to high-speed flight research.

The first tall, it was undoubtedly one of the most impressive aircraft ever built.

xb-70 supersonic

The XB-70 was capable of flying at speeds of over 3,200 kilometers per hour, about 50% faster than Concorde. Credit: NASA

Among its distinguishing features were wingtips that remained horizontal at subsonic speeds, but folded after reaching supersonic speeds to reduce drag. Its main design elements, such as the delta-shaped wing and slim, elongated fuselage, were reproduced by both Concorde and its Soviet clone, the Tupolev Tu-144, which also featured two “canards” or wings just aft of the cockpit. Were. The XB-70 which gave pilots greater control at lower speeds.

Landis explains, “During the 1960s, both the military and civilian sectors devoted enormous resources to the development of supersonic transportation.” “In the early stage, almost all aircraft companies based their initial design on the XB-70.”

As more information became available, Landis says, these designs evolved into more sophisticated ones, like Concorde, as well as other projects that remained on paper, like Concorde rivals planned by Lockheed and Boeing.

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supersonic aircraft xb-70 valkyrie

Six General Electric turbojet engines were installed in the rear of the aircraft. Credit: United States Air Force

Once it became clear that the Valkyrie’s role as a bomber was being abandoned, its designers came up with alternative uses for the aircraft: “American engineers became very creative, and came up with many different- Came up with different uses,” says Landis. “But the only version that was seriously considered was a transport version for military and civilian use.”

Three variants were proposed, ranging from a high-density one with a capacity of 158 passengers to a “deluxe” layout that allowed 114 seats and included a living room in the center of the cabin.

“While he was the first person to return the aircraft to flight testing,” Landis says.

supersonic flight

The first XB-70, named Valkyrie after a naming contest, was launched on May 11, 1964 at Palmdale, California. Credit: NASA/Divds

It is hard to imagine what the passenger experience would have been like in such an aircraft, but according to Landis it would have been very similar to Concorde: “Sleek, quiet, with ample space between the seats. Due to the operating costs of the aircraft and the number of seats, Due to the limited number, it is most likely that its cost was affordable only to the upper middle class and wealthy people.

More importantly, it would have been faster, connecting London and New York in just two and a half hours, compared to the normal Concorde’s three and a half hours.

Other proposed versions of the aircraft envisioned it as a launch pad for orbital spacecraft and even Minuteman missiles, but like the passenger version, they never materialized.

a fatal accident

XB-70 Valkyrie

XB-70 Valkyrie right after crashing. Credit: US Air Force

The XB-70 program was interrupted in 1966 by a fatal accident during a photo session organized by General Electric. The second and most advanced of the two existing Valkyries collided with a smaller aircraft, an F-104N, in mid-flight, killing its pilot and one of the XB-70 pilots, while the other escaped with serious injuries.

The destroyed Valkyrie had flown only 46 flights, and the remainder ended their careers after 83 flights, many of them as NASA’s supersonic test bed, and after spending just over 160 hours in the air.

XB-70 Valkyrie

The wingtips remained horizontal at subsonic speeds, but folded at supersonic speeds to reduce drag. It also had two “canards” or winglets behind the cockpit to provide greater control at high speeds. Credit: NASA/Divds

The last of these flights took place on February 4, 1969, in which the aircraft was transported from what is now NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where the aircraft became part of the Air Force’s collection. archive.

Although the program has not reached its full potential, the legacy of the XB-70 lives on, Landis says: “All large, high-speed aircraft designs benefit from the work they did.” is available. And the data from those research flights will continue to influence the design of future aircraft.”

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