How a Supersonic Bomber Was Saved by a 2 Cent Paperclip

On April 30th, 1966, the massive six-engined North American Aviation XB-70 Valkyrie AV/2 prototype of the B-70 nuclear-armed, deep-penetration strategic bomber rolled down the taxiway in preparation for a short test flight. At the controls of this graceful behemoth, were test pilots Joe Cotton, and Al White. The grocery list of the day was to take the prototype supersonic bomber up for 30 minutes of Mach 3 + flight using atmospheric friction to fully heat soak the aircraft. 
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Positioning the Valkyrie on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, the crew light up the six afterburning turbojets capable of producing 168,000 pounds of thrust, and the massive bomber began to accelerate down the runway. A bomber so fast, and who's cruising altitude was so high, she would be all but impervious to enemy interception.  The untouchable experimental bomber rotated off the famed Edwards runway complex for her high speed run.
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As the XB-70 was climbing out, all aircraft systems seemed to be operating within normal parameters, when Cotton pulled the gear handle to clean up his aircraft. Unfortunately gremlins were hard at work that day, and when the comforting thump of gear retraction was absent, both Cotton and White quickly realized all was not well, and discovered that the nose gear jammed mid transition. All efforts to re extend the gear with the normal hydraulic system failed, followed by an attempt with the back up electrical system that was answered with the unwelcome popping sound of an electrical short….thus, the commencement of plan B…whatever that was. 
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Well, with a stuck nose gear, a failed hydraulic system, and a dead electrical backup, it was decided that Plan B would entail giving the XB-70 a couple of hard landings that might shake the lodged nose gear loose. After couple of bounce and go’s failed to produce the desired results…Plan B was declared a failure.
 
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In most aircraft, the idea of a gear up landing is not an attractive option, but is most likely a survivable one for both crew and aircraft. However, attempting a gear up landing in the long necked delta winged bomber would be an aeronautical impossibility. Given the high nose up attitude of the XB-70 in landing configuration, the resultant drop of the nose section upon touchdown would be disastrous for the aircraft, and her crew.
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If the gear could not be lowered, then they would have to bail out of the 370 million dollar aircraft, sacrificing it to the desert sands below, and potentially bringing the entire B-70 program down with it. As the bomber circled overhead, North American Aircraft engineers were scrambling to come up with a solution to save the crew and the bomber.
 
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Finally, they found the issue with the electrical back up, and advised Cotton that a circuit had been interrupted. Now that the issue was identified, instructions were quickly transmitted to the bomber crew above…and the instructions were, to intentionally “ short—circuit” the electricals. 
Not prepared for any mid-flight maintenance work, nor having any tools on hand, Cotton found a two cent metal paperclip in his briefcase where he keeps his test flight docs. Cotton proceeded to put on a leather glove, and did exactly what the engineers told him to do, bridging the electrical circuit by jamming in a simple paperclip. The success of his clever mid air ad-hock electrical repair was announced by the welcome thud of the nose gear locking down and in place.
 
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Unfortunately, the issues plaguing that flight were not over. As the XB-70 touched down at her normal approach speed of 180 kts, 3 of the 4 main gear locked up, resulting in a spectacular recovery filled with smoke and flames spewing off the mains.
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Thankfully, aside from cajun cooked tires, the experimental aircraft, and her crew survived the test flight completely intact, and on that glorious day, the 750 million dollar top secret supersonic intercontinental nuclear capable deep penetration untouchable strategic bomber known as the mighty XB-70 Valkyrie... was saved by a two cent paperclip.
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4 comments


  • BL

    The picture of the plane sure looks like a direct descendent of the Avro Arrow.


  • connie jo cotton

    Just using a flashlight – paperclip and a pencil diagram – I am happy to say I have them all and know this story well -


  • Jim

    Unfortunately, this A/C was involved in a mid-air collision a couple of months later resulting in the death of 2 of the chase plane pilots and severely injuring the XB-70’s pilot The aircraft was also destroyed.
    It was a great design and a great airplane. It was just too far ahead of its time!


  • Glen Geller

    Three of the four main gear locked up?
    How are you counting that?
    There are two main landing gear, each with four wheels.

    Regards,
    Glen in Beaverton Oregon


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