Coolest Test Pilot Ever: Joe Cotton Flew Mach-3, Landed a Plane With a Paperclip

Long before the '80s TV show.

Edwards Air Force Base

Fifty years ago, Colonel Joe Cotton, in what may have been the first instance of anyone ever MacGyvering themselves out of a jam, used a 39-cent paper clip to emergency land an XB-70 Valkyrie airplane. What makes the event stand out — it wasn’t unusual for test pilots in the sixties to encounter technical errors or, well, crash — is the insanity of Cotton’s flight plan.

The XB-70 Valkyrie aircraft was the premier aircraft of the day and Cotton was one of the premier pilots. On May 19, 1966, he was tasked with flying the aircraft at Mach 3, TKTK, which he did for 33 minutes straight. Just 20 days earlier, though, the plane had an in-flight emergency.

Joe Cotton in front of the XB-70 Valkyrie he saved with a paper clip.

Edwards Air Force Base

Cotton and North American Aviation pilot Al White were testing the XB-70 on April 30, 1966, when the front landing gear malfunctioned.

“I am convinced we would have broken the plane to pieces if we had tried to land without the nose gear locked into position,” White said, reported by the Chicago Tribune.

Cotton and White stayed in the air for more than an hour, relaying their status to ground control as they searched for a solution. If the two aborted the plane or survived a crash, they would lose the state-of-the-art, $750 million plane. In today’s dollars, the plane would cost around $5.5 billion.

Finally, engineers on the ground figured out the problem: two electrical terminals weren’t communicating. The only way to fix the problem was to bypass the plane’s circuit breaker. Cotton located the junction box for the backup electrical system that controlled the front landing gear. Space inside the plane was too tight to hold a tool box, but Cotton had something else, something that MacGyver would have cherished: a paper clip.

The XB-70 Valkyrie

Edwards Air Force Base

Cotton connected the two terminals with the paper clip, bypassing the signal problem and allowing the front landing gear to deploy.

“I’m sure anybody could have gimmicked up something to short across between the terminals if they had the motivation I had,” Cotton said.

If by “anybody” he meant him and MacGyver, then yes. Anybody. Cotton passed away at the age of 94 on May 13, but his legacy lives on.