Wednesday, December 06, 2023

"Flight of the Valkyrie," by Charles Coombs (Boys' Life, July 1962)

I was originally going to post this to an aviation forum as a story identification question, since I only remembered some details from when I read it as a kid. But I finally found it, so I thought I'd share. 

The July, 1962 edition of Boys' Life (the magazine for Boy Scouts) featured "Flight of the Valkyrie," a short story by Charles Coombs. The entire issue is available on Google Books, and it's a time capsule of the era (don't miss the ads). 

Mind you, I'm not that old; not sure how we got hold of it; maybe from a library sale or a leave-behind from the previous owner of our house.

The story is really short, only about three magazine pages total. Also, the opening illustration practically gives away the ending. (So I cropped out the first page image here.)

It's about a test flight of a prototype US bomber, the North American XB-70 Valkyrie, a very distinctive, six-engine delta-wing with canards.

In the story, three engines flame out over Kansas, and the pilot decides to try to land on an empty stretch of highway. The crew sticks with him (though he reminds them that they can eject using their escape capsules all the way down to zero altitude), and they land successfully on the highway.

However, the XB-70 needs two miles of runway, and despite brakes, flaps, and drag chute, the plane is about to hit a curve and crash.

Spoilers ahead for a 60+ year-old short story:

At the last moment, the pilot comes up with an unconventional idea that saves the plane: He lowers the plane's folding wing tips (designed to help manage the plane during supersonic flight), which dig into the dirt on both sides of the road, slowing the plane in time.

When asked by the flight engineer (who previously doubted him due to an earlier mistake) how he thought of doing that, the pilot answers, "Had to drag something to help slow us down. And I couldn't get my feet out the window."

The wing tips are damaged, but the plane and crew are saved. The end.

Real-World Epilogue

Now, while this incident is completely fictional, a few years later in June 1966, there would be an infamous and well-documented mid-air collision resulting in a fatal crash

Anyway, since there's not much in the way of search results for this short story, I just wanted to put it out there.

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