B-70 Valkyrie Cancellation
Decisions made in the second half of 1959 hampered Air Force aircraft development efforts, placing additional pressure on the B-70 program. The nuclear-powered bomber, after overshadowing the chemically powered aircraft for years, began to suffer from financial malnutrition in 1956. By mid-1959, decisions at the highest executive level had put the program into almost total eclipse. The project's downfall was bound to impede the B-70 program since the cost of several B-70 subsystems were to be borne by the nuclear-powered bomber-officially canceled by the Kennedy Administration in March 1961. On I1 August, the Department of Defense canceled the high-energy fuel program. The use of this fuel had been counted on to extend the B-70's range substantially over its required radius. As it turned out, the high-energy fuel program cancellation had a lesser impact than anticipated because other jet fuels, JP-6 especially, were greatly improved. Just the same, as planning stood in mid-1959, elimination of the high-energy fuel program required additional configuration changes and, more specifically, a new engine for the B-70.
Termination on 24 September of the North American F-108 Rapier, a never-flown long-range interceptor under letter contract since 1957, was another blow. The B-70 program was directly affected. It would now be compelled to finance, at least partially, such development items as engines, escape capsules, and fuel systems that had been common to both aircraft systems and previously covered by F-108 funds. The loss was expected to boost B-70 program costs by at least $180 million.
General White's words of caution notwithstanding, more than 15 major subcontracts were let during the early part of 1959. In the ensuing months, after the high-energy fuel program and F-108 project were given up, money became increasingly scarce, and most B-70 activities were slowed down. But the program's new predicament was only a beginning.
In November 1959, during a meeting concerning the military programs of the coming year, President Eisenhower told the Air Force Chief of Staff that the "B-70 left him cold in terms of making military sense." General White conceded there were important questions involved and that the aircraft was very different from anything previously developed. He said the B-70 must overcome the terrific heat generated by high speed and high altitude and that the shape of the aircraft's wings and fuselage must be studied. However, to eliminate such unconventional aircraft would be going too fast and too far. Hardly impressed with the many pro-B-70 arguments put forth, the President stressed that the B-70, if allowed to reach production, would not be available for 8 or 10 years, when the major strategic retaliatory weapon would be the missile. The President finally agreed to take another look at the B-70 proposition, but in the same breath pointed out that speaking of bombers in the missile age was like talking about bows and arrows in the era of gunpowder.
The Air Force announced on 29 December that the B-70 program was reoriented to produce a prototype vehicle only and that the development of most sub-systems was canceled. The program's near demise was generally attributed to the Administration's budget.
The politics of the 1960 presidential campaign kindled the interest of both parties in the B-70. Thus, with the approval of the Defense Department, the Air Force in August 1960 directed that the XB-70 prototype program once again be changed to a development and test program. 7ivelve B-70 prototypes were added, and the program was designed to demonstrate the bomber's combat capability. This directive, coupled with a congressional appropriation of $265 million for fiscal year 1961, restored the B-70 to the status of a weapon system headed for production.
In September, North American was instructed to proceed with the design, development, fabrication, and testing of a number of YB-70s. Also, development of the major systems for an operational mach 3 bomber had to be ensured, which meant that many of the recently canceled subcontracts (let by the prime contractors early in 1959) had to be reopened. This exercise might be time-consuming as well as difficult, since some of the subcontractors might now be involved in other work. Even so, by mid-October the defensive subsystem contract with Westinghouse Electric Corporation had been reinstated. In November, North American reactivated the contract with Motorola, Incorporated for the mission and traffic control system of the B-70. In the same month, development of the B-70's bombing and navigation system, under the auspices of the International Business Machines Corporation and significantly reduced since the summer of 1959, regained the impetus normally afforded a system intended for production. Still, the B-70 program's recaptured importance was to be short lived.
Once in office, it did not take long for President John R Kennedy to take a critical look at the B-70 program. Like his predecessor, President Kennedy obviously doubted the aircraft's reason for being from the standpoint of future operations. On 28 March 1961, he recommended that the program be continued in order to explore the problems of flying at 3 times the speed of sound with an aircraft "potentially" useful as a bombers. This, President Kennedy underscored, should only require the development of a small number of YB-70s and bombing and navigation systems. No more than $220 million should be needed in fiscal year 1963, and the program's total cost should not exceed $1.3 billion. President Kennedy's words gave the Air Force no choice but to redirect the B-70 program from full weapon system status to that of a mere prototype aircraft development. Since the aircraft's eventual production appeared now most unlikely, the Air Force immediately began to consider various alternatives to the defunct B-70. In May 1961, there was talk of an improved B-58, armed with both bombs and air-launched missiles; of a specially designed, long-endurance, missile-launching aircraft; of transport planes modified to launch ballistic missiles; of the nuclear-powered aircraft, and again of a reconnaissance B-70, which would also be capable of striking the enemy. The Air Force's persistent search for a new manned bomber seemed unrealistic. On 25 May 1961, in an address to a joint session of the Congress, the President proposed to reinforce further the military establishment's capabilities in limited warfare and to expand substantially the Defense programs related to the newly accelerated national space effort. These specific goals clearly indicated that production of a costly new aircraft was excluded from President Kennedy's foreseeable planning. In August, the US. Senate attempted once more to rescue the B-70 and asked that a production program be outlined for the purpose of introducing the aircraft into the operational inventory at the earliest possible date. Undaunted, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara expressed his thorough dissatisfaction with North American Aviation's handling of the B-70 development.
The year 1962 did not resolve the B-70 predicament. The President insisted that only $171 million of FY 63 funds ($49 million less than proposed in 1961) be spent on the prototype program, instead of the $491 million requested by the Air Force and previously approved by Congress. In March, Congress indicated that the Air Force should use the $491 million for planning and procurement of a reconnaissance and strike B-70 (RSB-70), but later in the month reduced the amount to $362.6 million. In April, a group headed by Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, Commander of the Air Force Systems Command, developed several approaches to the proposed RSB-70 system. The development plan preferred by the group would cost $1.6 billion and it programmed the RSB-70's first flight within little more than 2 years. In June, this plan and others were disapproved by the Department of Defense. Nevertheless, on 23 November the President authorized the addition of $50 million to the currently approved $1.3 billion B-70 development program. The extra money was intended for the development of highly experimental sensor components, a requirement if the RSB-70 (as unlikely as it was) or any similar new weapons system should be considered later.
As explained to members of the Congress in January 1960 by Thomas S. Gates, Secretary of Defense during the last 2 years of the Eisenhower Administration, the B-70 program was hampered from the start by technical problems stemming from the "use of metal and components . . . still in the research stage." By 1962, although much progress had been made, severe problems remained. North American was still working on an automatic air induction control system for regulating the flow of air to the J93-3 jet engines, originally designed to power the canceled F-108 and, following the end of the high-energy fuel program, immediately earmarked for the B-70.
The secondary power generating subsystem, due to provide current to the pump that maintained hydraulic pressure, also was unsatisfactory Excessive vibration caused failures in the generator gear boxes, and the hydraulic pumps frequently broke down. Braces were added to steady the gear boxes, but the pumps had to be rebuilt with metals capable of withstanding the intense heat of supersonic operations as well as the extreme pressure generated within the hydraulic lines.
At the close of 1962, other serious problems still prevented completion of the first air vehicle, accounting for North American's continual revision of the XB-70's delivery schedule. Defective stainless steel honeycomb panels necessitated an unanticipated number of repairs. The panels of the air ducting system bay and the fuel tank areas had numerous examples of such defects. A nickel-plating process was sufficient to eliminate most imperfections, but repairs on the fuel tank areas had to be air-tight to prevent the escape of nitrogen gas. In December, North American was considering giving up the use of polyimide varnish in favor of vitron sealant. Another significant problem was that the wings did not fit properly to the wing stubs. Special adapters had been developed and were being manufactured, but again this took time and money.
In 1963 and 1964 frustrations with the B-70 increased. Almost 40 of the $50 million approved for the development of sensor components was diverted to the experimental bomber to allow continuation of the 3-plane program. In June 1963, the Air Force converted the XB-70 contract from the cost-plus-fixed-fee to the cost-plus-incentive-fee type. But no spectacular progress ensued. In September, North American suggested further delivery revisions. The first aircraft, North American said, would be completed in April 1964-4 months past the latest deadline assigned by the Air Force. In October, continued technical problems and rising expenses prompted the Air Force to request that the cost of a 2-vehicle program be defined. On 7 January 1964, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff since 30 June 1961, although a strong supporter of the B-70, endorsed the Air Force Council's recommendation favoring the 1-vehicle reduction. The decision was dictated by the compelling need to avoid ceding the program's approved total cost of $1.5 billion. The decision also practically closed the case of the two-XB-70 program and definitely prevented the start of RSB-70 development.
The first flight of the XB-70A Valkyrie occurred on 21 September 1964, nearly 4 years later than the date scheduled in 1958 (right after North American had won the contract). The name Valkyrie resulted from a "name the B-70" contest, sponsored by the Strategic Air Command in the spring of 1958. The experimental bomber flew for approximately 1 hour in the northeast-southwest corridor between Palmdale, California, and the Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards AFB, also in California. The 2-member crew-Alvin White, North American Chief Test Pilot, and Col. Joseph F Cotton, USAF B-70 Chief 'lest Pilot-landed successfully at Edwards AFB. Nevertheless, the plane had to undergo additional ground tests before entering an extensive flight testing program at Edwards.
The striking features of the experimental B-70 centered on the configuration and composition of its airframe, with its semi-monocoque fuselage of steel and titanium. Also, the bomber's external skin was composed of brazed stainless steel honeycomb sandwich, wide use having been made of titanium alloys. The XB-70's flying controls comprised elevons on the trailing edges of the cantilever delta wings and twin vertical fins and rudders. The large canard foreplane was adjustable to achieve "trim" (balance in flight or landing, etc.). Its trailing edge flaps enabled it to droop the elevons to act as flaps, making it possible for the XB-70 to take off from and land on existing B-52 airstrips.
Continued technical difficulties delayed the XB-70's testing program. For the same. reasons, completion of the second experimental B-70 took longer than expected, and the bomber did not fly before July 1965. Less than a year later, on 19 May 1966, the second XB-70A flew for 32 minutes at the sustained speed of mach 3. Unfortunately, tragedy closely followed this remarkable achievement. On 8 June, the plane was lost in a mid-air collision with a Lockheed F-104 fighter. The loss, occurring at approximately 25,000 feet, near Barstow, California, 43 miles east of Edwards AFB, reduced the XB-70A program to a single vehicle.
Total development costs were in excess of $1.5 billion and only 2 planes were accepted.
In March 1967, the Air Force transferred the remaining XB-70A to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where the plane took part in an expanded flight research program. The program's main objective was to verify data applicable to a supersonic transport. The space agency's retention of the XB-70 was of short duration. Before the end of the year, the Valkyrie reached its final destination and was put on display at the Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
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