At least by outward appearances some airplanes are downright timeless, and though it was developed nearly 70 years ago, the Convair B-58 Hustler is one of them.
Nearly 97 feet (31 m) long and just more than 56 feet (17 m) from wingtip to wingtip, sleek, supersonic, American B-58 “Hustlers” featured narrow fuselages and four massive General Electric J79-GE-5A turbojet engines hanging in nacelles below their thin delta wings.
With maximum takeoff weights of nearly 177,000 pounds (80,285 kg) they were more than three times heavier than the B-17s of World War II, but with combined thrust of more than 40,000 pound-feet without afterburners (reheaters), each was capable of attaining Mach 2 (1,319 mph / 2,122 km/h) with full weapons loads.
In short, they were just what the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) needed to deliver nuclear payloads to targets in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Designed to fly high and fast to minimize the threat from Soviet surface-to-air missiles and interceptors, Hustlers ultimately replaced Boeing’s aging subsonic B-47 Stratojets, and they were most well-known for their cutting edge designs and avionics, breathtaking performance, and the sonic booms they produced when smashing through the sound barrier.
The B-58 was conceived in the late ‘40s when the Air Force funded a study examining the feasibility of supersonic long-range nuclear bombers, and less than a year later a formal proposal followed.
Light on specs, the USAF left it up to designers and manufacturers to decide how best to achieve these broad goals.
Even by today’s standards it would be an epic undertaking, but back then computers were less capable than modern cake timers, and sustained supersonic flight for bombers was more a dream than a reality.
Not surprisingly, many top Air Force officials considered it unlikely that these parameters would be met any time in the foreseeable future.
In addition, the engines of the day were too underpowered and sucked down too much fuel, and if engineers were able to produce suitable aircraft, their weapons loads would most likely be laughably small.
Nonetheless, Boeing, Convair, Curtiss, Douglas, Martin and North American Aviation submitted proposals, but though their designs varied greatly, most were unspectacular.
On the other hand, Convair used its experience building delta-winged aircraft like the F-102 to produce a revolutionary bomber that incorporated groundbreaking aerodynamics, avionics and weapons systems, and if the estimates were correct, performance would be nothing short of spectacular.
Convair’s original proposal was delivered in January of 1951, but unlike the final production version, it featured three three General Electric engines instead of four.
Top speed was estimated at about 1,000 mph (1,600 km/h), and to keep the plane’s body thin they incorporated a large external “mission pod” slung under the fuselage that would house both extra fuel and the nuclear payload.
However in December of that year, they revised and resubmitted their proposal, which now incorporated two engines instead of three.
From the field of bidders, Boeing and Convair’s designs were selected to proceed to the second phase of development, but shortly thereafter Convair once again changed its proposal – this time from two engines back to four smaller GE J79s which had been specifically designed for supersonic flight.
The gamble worked, and less than a year later the company was awarded a limited production and development contract for the new airplane, now designated B-58.
With the heavy lifting of additional design tweaks and years of testing still ahead, Convair discovered that their responsibilities would extend much further than just assembling airframes.
Instead, in what’s now regarded as the first comprehensive “weapons system contract,” as the primary contractor Convair would be responsible for nearly every element of production and oversight down to the smallest detail, like having training manuals written, printed and distributed, and making sure each subcontractor’s invoices were submitted properly.
All told, this equated to more than 1 million parts, systems and subsystems supplied by hundreds of distinct companies.
Convair initially built two prototypes, the first of which was completed in the summer of 1956.
Nearly a dozen additional pre-production aircraft were also built, as were more than 30 mission pods of varying design.
The program proceeded under especially high security with the various teams being kept compartmentalized as much as was feasible, to minimize the chance of vital technical information being leaked.
The prototype’s maiden flight took place in November of that year, and just a few months later the Hustler pushed its way through the sound barrier for the first time.
Design Elements and Weapons
B-58s were among the first bombers to use aluminum and fiberglass honeycomb panels for both strength and weight savings, and as a result their airframes made up just less than 14% of total weight – significantly lower than most other aircraft of the era.
The aerodynamicist-designed engine inlets were revolutionary as well.
Each used a conical spike that automatically adjusted at various speeds and altitudes to supply the engines with optimum airflow.
B-58s also featured new bombing navigation systems that worked in conjunction with sophisticated inertial navigation systems and Doppler radar units, that together calculated everything from air, ground and wind speed, to exact altitude and distance from the target.
All told, this system was as much as 10 times more accurate than previous ones.
Defensive armament consisted of a single 20 mm rotary cannon with 1,200 rounds of ammunition protruding from a small unmanned barbette in the tail.
The cannon was remotely operated and aided by a computerized fire control system.
Offensive armament generally consisted of one Mark 39 or B53 tactical nuclear weapon housed in the pod under the fuselage, while some variants got wing-mounted hardpoints capable of carrying four additional nuclear bombs which could collectively weigh nearly 20,000 pounds (9,070 kg).
Although the USAF considered modifying some B-58s to deliver conventional bombs and early cruise missiles, these variants were never officially adopted, though some aircraft substituted nuclear payloads for reconnaissance gear which was also housed in the mission pods.
Chimps, Bears, Sexy Voices and “Turtling Up”
B-58s were manned by a pilot, bombardier/navigator, and defensive systems operator.
The pilot’s cockpit was relatively conventional if surprisingly claustrophobic for a bomber.
The crew space took up nearly half of the fuselage’s internal volume, and in the event that ejection was necessary each member had a capsule that could be jettisoned from the craft at altitudes up to 70,000 feet (21,000 m) and speeds approaching Mach 2.
Unlike standard ejection seats, each featured a 2-piece shell that would clamp around the occupant in a hair-raising scenario referred to as getting “turtled up.”
Capsules included oxygen tanks for high-altitude ejections, and could be used as life rafts when bailing out over the ocean couldn’t be avoided.
These complex capsules required extensive testing, much of which was done using live bears and chimps, despite the fact that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) had been around in the United States for nearly a century.
To minimize stress, the mammalian subjects were given tranquilizers before being fitted with various biometric sensors and blasted into the sky.
One bear was killed during a test ejection, though the Air Force’s official position was – get this – that its death was caused by a preexisting brain issue and not the ejection itself.
A number of animals suffered only minor bruising and abrasions, though in what must have been akin to surviving a tsunami only to be killed by food poisoning days later, the Air Force euthanized some of the survivors, after which autopsies were performed to determine if they’d sustained internal injuries.
On the bright side, though this treatment of these innocent animals was dastardly at best, the pods received full certification in 1963.
B-58s were also among the first aircraft to have human voice warning messages as opposed to annoying alarms and buzzers.
These would resonate through the crew’s helmets when something was seriously wrong, and research indicated that the all-male crews responded more quickly to female voices.
In fact, contractor Nortronics hired singer and actress Joan Elms to record the messages, because apparently there’s just something about a woman’s voice that perks men up, even during nuclear exchanges and when preparing to eject from a supersonic aircraft streaming through the stratosphere.
While B-58s were groundbreaking aircraft, they were exceedingly difficult to handle for pilots and crews on long-distance flights, and many of their Achilles’ heels were caused by one of the elements that made them so fast – their delta wings.
In certain situations where the angle of descent or attack was too steep, the planes could enter spins.
Recovery was possible, but usually only if it happened above 15,000 feet (4,600 m).
B-58s also had notoriously unorthodox stall characteristics which were often exacerbated by a phenomena called “fuel stacking,” in which fuel sloshed forward and backward in the tanks during hard acceleration and deceleration.
This caused the aircraft’s center of gravity to shift repeatedly which could lead to a loss of control if the pilot made too many compensations too quickly.
High landing speed was another inherent flaw that’s common on many aircraft with delta wings.
Fast touch-downs were stressful for crews and airframes and tough on both tires and landing gears, and drogue parachutes had to be deployed to prevent Hustles from barrelling off the ends of runways before coming to a stop.
Despite these drawbacks however, high accident losses, penny-pinching measures instituted by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and advances in Soviet technology were the final nails in the proverbial coffin.
Of these, the new Soviet SAMS – like the one that downed Francis Gary Powers and his high-flying U2 over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960 – were perhaps most responsible for relegating B-58s to low-level penetration missions for which they were never designed.
Mishaps and Accidents
In early June of 1961 a B-58 crashed during the Paris Air Show killing all three crewmen, and just a few months later another potentially fatal incident was barely averted in the United States.
While on a routine training mission from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, a B-58 suffered a fire which rendered its main landing gear inoperable.
A chase aircraft was dispatched to assess the situation, and while a solution was mulled over by engineers and service techs on the ground, the aircraft refueled eight times and flew through the night.
Ordered to head toward California, Hustler and crew finally made an emergency landing at Edwards Air Force Base just after the sun had crested over the horizon.
Then in early December of 1968, a B-58 carrying actual nukes slid off an icy runway in Indiana and burst into flames.
The five – yes five – badly charred nuclear weapons onboard spread radiation over a wide area, though compared to what could have been, the incident was relatively benign.
Then, in an eerie case of deja vu, another B-58 crashed at the Paris Air Show in the summer of 1965 after touching down short of the runway, after which it struck a beacon pilon and burst into flames.
Thankfully, two of the three crewmen survived.
Its less than stellar safety record aside, B-58s set 19 world speed records including those for quickest coast-to-coast run and the longest supersonic flight ever, during which it covered the
8,030 miles (12,925 km) between Tokyo and London in a little over 8 hours and 30 minutes.
With an average speed of 938 miles per hour (1,510 km/h), the record stood for more than 50 years.
Even more impressively, the aircraft hadn’t been modified in any way, and one of its afterburners malfunctioned near the end of the flight which reduced average speed significantly.
Fittingly, the B-58 responsible for this feat was nicknamed “Greased Lightning.”
The Last Hustle
Begining in March of 1960, Hustlers entered service with SAC’s 43rd and 305th bomber wings.
Of the 116 units produced the last was delivered to the Air Force in late 1962, though they’d have a surprisingly short shelf life of less than a decade despite a total program cost that exceeded 3 billion USD, or more than 20 billion USD today.
By comparison, B-52s had become operational about five years before, and will probably remain in Air Force service long after 2050.
Each B-58 was three times more expensive to maintain than a B-52, and in 1965 Defense Secretary McNamara officially ordered Hustlers to be phased out, though they wouldn’t technically be withdrawn from service until early 1970.
B-58s were largely replaced by newer and smaller General Dynamics F-111s, which are multi-role “swing wing” aircraft known for their ability to fly contour-hugging penetration missions to avoid detection by enemy radar.
B-58s also suffered high accident rates, and ultimately more than 20% of the aircraft produced were lost during what should have been relatively routine flights and training exercises.
Legendary Air Force General Curtis LeMay may have summed it up best when he said that B-58s were too small, too expensive, and required too many in-flight refuelings to complete even the shortest missions.
Most remaining Hustlers spent their last days baking under the scorching Arizona sun at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson before being sold for scrap.
Of the crews who flew them, many were handpicked to fly the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird – still the fastest jet aircraft of all time.