Our Previously Terrifying Future

XB-70 in flightThere’s always a lot of nostalgia floating around regarding “the way things were”, and not always undeservedly so, but there are things we’ve had a hand in that leave me blinking at the possibilities for awe and disaster.

In the 1950s, nuclear power was all the rage – so much so that the American Government undertook to develop a nuclear-powered bomber aircraft that it could use to to deploy atomic weaponry from high altitudes, and at high velocity.

Not only would a nuclear-plane be able to maintain supersonic speeds, it could do so nearly indefinitely.

Imagine a sky full of planes that only need to land when their wings start to peel off.

Of course, reality came down heavy on the designers, and the radioactive aspects of the engine were pulled out of the contract.

This beast was the first proposal for an alternate. As the wikipedia notes, “the “floating panels” are large fuel tanks the size of a B-47″ – and they were intended to peel off once empty.

Like the atomic aspect, the extra tanks were also eventually left in the design-room’s trash, and two prototypes were built, with a third canceled mid-production. Technology had simply outpaced their need.

What happened to the orphaned birds that once dreamed of being nuclear?

On 8 June 1966, XB-70A #2 was in close formation with four other aircraft (an F-4, F-5, T-38, and F-104) for a photoshoot […] the F-104 drifted into contact with the XB-70’s right wing, flipped over, and rolling inverted, passed over the top of the Valkyrie, struck the vertical stabilizers and left wing and exploded, destroying the Valkyrie’s rudders and damaging its left wing […] the Valkyrie entered an uncontrollable spin and crashed into the ground north of Barstow, California. – wikipedia

A simple accident that could have happened in any, or to any, aircraft; nothing mechanical, just pilot error – still, in an alternate history of ever-flying planes, it would have been anything but a simple clean up.

The remaining prototype is in a museum, where it probably belongs.