Impressive, Expensive, Complicated–That was the Convair B-58. Actor and Brig Gen talks up the Mach 2 bomber.
On March 15th 1960, the first Convair B-58 Hustler became operational with Strategic Air Command (SAC). One of the most impressive aircraft ever built, the Hustler was also expensive to operate, equipped with complicated systems that frequently required attention, tricky to fly, limited in its payload capacity, and in the end was rendered obsolete by the surface-to-air (SAM) missile. But to anyone who ever saw one in flight, the Hustler was absolutely unforgettable.
The B-58 prototype first flew on November 11th 1956. The design premise and intended mission of the B-58 was high-altitude supersonic penetration of Soviet airspace and release of multiple atomic bombs on targets for SAC. Design highlights were its 60 degree raked delta wing, four underwing pod-mounted afterburning General Electric J79 engines, separate tandem compartments for the flight crew of three, distinctive area-ruled fuselage shape, and the large centerline fuel tank / weapon pod.
When the Soviets began to deploy accurate surface-to-air missiles in the early 1960s, SAC was quickly convinced that the B-58 would not survive against the new generation SAMs at high altitude. The mission profile of the B-58 went from what it was specifically designed to do to what it quite simply could not do.
Whatever the limitations of the B-58 were, it was certainly revolutionary. Capable of sustained flight at Mach 2 speeds, the Hustler was so advanced that nearly all of the B-58’s systems had to be re-thought and engineered from a new sheet of paper. Coming as it did so soon after sustained supersonic flight had been achieved for the first time, B-58s were nearly otherworldly to the public.
B-58 ejection seats were equipped with a protective shield or clamshell capsule that would shield the crew members- a completely new technology brought about by the prospect of ejection at Mach 2 speeds and 70,000 foot altitudes. The capsule would float in water and provide independent oxygen to its occupant. Similar systems have been incorporated into new designs ever since.
Many of today’s military pilots ruefully refer to the audio warning systems in their aircraft as “Bitchin’ Betty.” Audio warning systems were pioneered in the Hustler, so in large part they have the B-58 to thank for “Bitchin’ Betty”, but Hustler crews called her “Sexy Sally.” How times have changed!
Supposedly ten times more accurate than any previous bombing / navigation system, the B-58’s collection of AN/ASQ-42 “black boxes” enabled the aircraft to be, at least potentially, the most accurate atomic bomber in the Air Force arsenal. The B-58, thankfully, never did have to perform the mission for which it was intended.
The Hustler mounted a single remotely aimed and controlled 20 millimeter Gatling gun in the tail for self-defense. The large centerline pod housed both additional fuel and a nuclear weapon that could be jettisoned in separate parts. At various times the B-58 carried up to four additional B43 or B61 atomic weapons on dedicated pylons mounted under its wing roots.
Convair F-102 Delta Dagger interceptors were used to familiarize pilots with delta-wing handling characteristics before flying the TB-58A trainer. Never easy to fly, the B-58 was notorious for keeping its pilots and crews task-saturated in flight. There was never a dull in-flight moment on a Hustler, but the crews came around to the massive machine and it became dangerous to cast aspersions on their Mach 2 birds.
Intended to replace the Boeing B-47 Stratojet bomber, the Hustler cost about four times as much to operate as the B-47 and three times as much as the B-52 on an hourly basis. Even during the hottest of Cold War days, the cost of the B-58 program was prohibitive and the accident rate (22.4% of the total number of B-58s produced) was unacceptably high.
SAC General Curtis LeMay was once quoted as having said, “The B-58 is a great airplane, if you’re going to war with Canada.” Nonetheless, SAC’s 43rd Bombardment Wing operated the B-58 from 1960 to 1970. In addition to operating the Hustler between 1961 and 1970, the SAC 305th Bombardment Wing also conducted Hustler combat crew training.
Convair built a total of 116 Hustlers. 30 of these were early pre-production trials aircraft that were eventually reworked to make them operational B-58A bombers. Eight TB-58A dual-control trainers were built as well. B-58s were used for a variety of test duties, including flying as chase aircraft for the XB-70 Valkyrie bomber program, radar testing for the Lockheed YF-12, and participating in Operation Bongo Mark 2– the study of repeated sonic booms on the citizenry of Oklahoma City.
Right about the time that B-58 crews had resolved, or at least learned to live with, most of the Hustler’s idiosyncrasies, the aircraft were withdrawn from service. It was simply too risky to penetrate Soviet airspace at high altitude with the thin air suddenly thick with improved Soviet SAMs.
Low altitude penetration became the name of the game- a game the B-58 was just not able to play. Withdrawn from service beginning in 1965 and completely by January of 1970, the B-58 was replaced by the new General Dynamics FB-111A, a less expensive, simpler to maintain, and superior low-level penetrator. The FB would experience its own issues, but that’s a story for another day.
The stock B-58A “Greased Lightning” still owns the record for the longest supersonic flight in history. This operational Hustler, after no special preparation other than a wash and wax job, flew from Tokyo to London in only 8 hours 35 minutes and 20 seconds. The B-58 also won every prestigious aviation award of its day, including the Bendix, Harmon, Thompson, Bleriot, and Mackay trophies.
The B-58 was operational with SAC for only ten years. Its specialized design and world events conspired to render it obsolete even before the last aircraft was delivered in 1961. But it was undeniably one impressive machine.