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If my fighter pilot friends are wondering about me after my earlier diary on the F-101B Voodoo air defense interceptor, they'll surely think I've lost my grip now, fetishizing over—of all things—a bomber.

B-58A Hustler with weapons (photo: USAF)

You have to admit, the B-58 Hustler was a mean machine, IMO the coolest bomber ever, a product of the speed-is-everything 1950s.  I'm sorry to say I never saw one in the air, despite growing up in the 1960s when they were flying.  But perhaps that's understandable: only 116 B-58s were built, and they were based at bomb wings in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, far from any of the places I lived then.  I would love to have seen and heard one of these beautiful machines.

Well, at least there's one I can look at whenever I want: it's on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, where I volunteer as a tour guide.  I can never walk past our B-58 without stopping and staring.  Even standing still, paint fading in the sun, its engine intakes covered, it looks like it's busting through the Mach.

PASM's B-58A Hustler (photo: Paul Woodford)

The Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949, four years after ours.  By 1953—one year after we tested our first one—they had a hydrogen bomb as well.  While the USSR was right behind the USA in nuclear bomb development through the late 1940s and early 1950s, the US Air Force thought it was still possible to get a leg up on the Soviet Union with a high-altitude supersonic nuclear bomber—at the time the USSR simply didn't have the capability to shoot one down.  This was the genesis of early research and the USAF's 1951 Supersonic Aircraft Bomber project, which in 1953 resulted in a contract for Convair to begin work on what became the B-58.

The prototype B-58 flew in November 1956, followed by a three-year flight test program involving up to 30 test aircraft.  Designing and testing a bomber built to fly twice the speed of sound at altitudes in excess of 50,000 feet was still scary stuff in the mid to late 1950s, and that perhaps explains the lengthy flight test process—we were exploring new territory with this exotic and complex airplane.

The USAF declared the B-58 operational in March 1960.  In addition to the test aircraft, Convair built over 80 production B-58As, with the last one rolling off the line in October 1962 (as it happens, my museum's B-58A is the last one delivered to the USAF).  Starting around 1960 Convair began converting the test aircraft to operational status, for a total B-58A fleet of 116 aircraft.

The Hustler had a short life span: the fleet flew for just ten years.  By the end of January 1970, they had all been retired.

By the time B-58s began flying for the USAF's Strategic Air Command, the USSR had of course caught up with us again and now had surface to air missiles capable of shooting down high-altitude supersonic bombers (a capability they convincingly demonstrated in May 1960 when they shot down an American U-2 spy plane flying at over 80,000 feet).  Because of that threat the B-58 was never employed in the role it was designed for; instead SAC crews operated it as a low-altitute penetration bomber, much as, years later, SAC employed the FB-111 and B-1 bombers.  The B-58 flew well at low altitude, but it was only barely supersonic in the denser air and its fuel consumption went through the roof, limiting its range.

SAC had initially resisted the B-58, feeling it was an unnecessary weapons system that had been forced down its throat, an expensive and dangerous one at that.  A B-58 cost approximately three times as much to acquire as a B-52, and over its life cycle proved to cost three times as much to maintain.  It was a handful to fly with high cockpit workloads for all three crew members (pilot, bombardier/navigator, and defensive systems operator).  Loss of an engine at high speed, especially an outboard, could put the airplane into a high yaw condition that was particularly treacherous.  Over its life, 26 Hustlers were lost in accidents, nearly 25% of the total fleet.

In spite of the Hustler's shortcomings, once SAC began flying the airplane it adopted a more proprietary attitude and began developing tactics for its use.  By 1965, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declared the B-58 non-viable and directed its retirement, SAC had become a staunch defender of the Hustler.  SAC and Convair had plans on the books (never to reach fruition) to acquire 185 improved B-58Bs, and was even thinking about a Mach 3-capable B-58C.

One of the more interesting components of the B-58 was the escape capsule, designed to protect its occupant in the event of a high-altitude supersonic ejection (the pilot's capsule actually incorporated flight controls so that he could continue to fly the aircraft once he'd closed the clamshell around himself).  The wings and fuselage—apart from the avionics, the automated defensive tailgun and radar, and the three tandem cockpits—carried fuel.  Additional fuel was carried in a large belly pod, which also housed a single nuclear bomb.  With a later version of the pod the fuel-carrying portion could be jettisoned, leaving just the bomb; over the years hardpoints were added to allow the carriage of up to four nuclear weapons total (the B-58 carried only nukes—it had no conventional bomb capability whatever).  The B-58 could be fitted with a photoreconnaissance pod; there were plans for electronic countermeasures and cruise missile-launching pods as well.  One B-58 was modified to carry and flight test the J93 engine designed to power the XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, and during flight test of the XB-70 a B-58 was used as a chase plane.  Another B-58 was used to test a prototype air-launched ballistic missile.

B-58 escape capsule (USAF Museum)
B-58 escape capsule (photo: USAF Museum)

Despite the Soviet Union's demonstrated capability to shoot down high-altitude supersonic bombers, at some high level the USAF has never abandoned the dream.  I think immediately of the previously-mentioned XB-70, developed in the 1960s even after the high-altitude supersonic bomber concept was clearly no longer viable; a less obvious follow-on (mainly because no one is yet openly talking about it in this context) is the USAF's unmanned X-37B space plane prototype, which recently returned from a 15-month orbital mission (during which no one but the USAF was able to track it).  Heh. Shoot that down, Putin!


Additional images on Flickr:

Originally posted to pwoodford on Sun Jul 29, 2012 at 03:41 PM PDT.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  My first job out of college (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mookins, BlackSheep1, Simplify, raster44

    was working on the Titan II missile launch facilities in Arkansas.  I used to see B-58s flying in and out of Little Rock AFB.  They would come over low, but even flying low and slow, they were still really fast. Even parked on the ramp, they looked as if they were going fast.  

    Back in those days, there were no Mach restrictions over US airspace.  You would see a really fast tiny silver speck trailing a white contrail.  After the plane was well past, there would be a loud double "crack" as the sonic boom reached the ground.  They would rattle windows and the china in the cabinet.  

    The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

    by Otteray Scribe on Sun Jul 29, 2012 at 03:53:48 PM PDT

  •  Coolest plane ever ! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BlackSheep1, Simplify, raster44

    I had a model of the B-58 when I was a kid. It was the star of the movie Fail-Safe too. I'm getting ready to post a BAK Open Thread soon, check it out.

    The GOP ... Government of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%

    by Azazello on Sun Jul 29, 2012 at 04:33:44 PM PDT

  •  granddaddy to the B-1-B now (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Simplify, KenBee

    but I remember seeing them when I was small -- between November of '63 and when we left Texas for the Ozarks in '67, and they were both absolutely stunningly pretty, and very loud.

    I have a scar on my hand from falling from the ruins of a partial one that used to live in the CAF's museum at Lea County airport in New Mexico ... about the forwardmost 20 feet, with wing roots and one cockpit still intact...

    Texas is no Bush league! LBJ & Lady Bird, Molly Ivins, Barbara Jordan, Sully Sullenberger, Drew Brees. -7.50,-5.59

    by BlackSheep1 on Sun Jul 29, 2012 at 09:16:03 PM PDT

  •  Great stuff (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Simplify, KenBee

    A plane ahead of it's time.  Or at least it's time wasn't ready for it.  

    It's avionics were on the cusp of the solid state revolution.  Solid state (transistors) wasn't reliable enough and vacuum technology was too heavy.  

    I worked at General Dynamics in the late '70's, in Fort Worth, home of the B-58.  Guys told horror stories about changing the engines.  For every few panels you took off, you had to replace a panel or install some sort of spreader to keep tension on the rest of the panels you still had to remove.  The guy that designed the bomb/fuel tank transporter was so proud if his work, he still had the drawings 20 years later.

    “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

    by markdd on Sun Jul 29, 2012 at 09:17:24 PM PDT

  •  Your previous article in the F-101 (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Simplify, raster44, KenBee

    mentioned the SAGE
    computer system which I  had totally forgotten about.
      In the early sixties my father (D-Day Glider Pilot) was stationed at the facility at Luke AFB. During the Cuban missile crisis they sent down to Florida. I went with him one night for a full shift at Luke and spent a lot of the time at one of the consoles (An overwhelming  number of buttons and dials, a light gun you could point at the screen with to designate the acft. you wanted information on and in the upper left a series of armed switches connected to a Nike missile launcher.)
      Considering it was 1962, it was some very impressive technology.  

  •  Flat-out most beautiful plane of the jet age. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    markdd, Simplify, KenBee

    Just an incredibly beautiful aircraft, and insanely advanced when it first flew...which was of course the problem, out on the 'bleeding edge' of technology.

    My understanding is that it was incredibly difficult to keep flying, a maintenance nightmare. To permit relatively long range with extremely high speed, it was basically a giant flying fuel tank, with an extremely light structural weight through use of aluminum honeycomb panels for much of the airframe. And in the pre-electronics era, its flight controls were run by an absurdly complicated hydraulic system with all sorts of arcane crossovers and interconnections to prevent potentially destabilizing control surface configurations. The whole thing was almost impossible to keep adjusted in flight-ready condition.

    A fair number of them were lost due to simple structural failure, as the ultra-light airframe could be overstressed by low altitude/storm turbulence, though this was not an issue in the thin air at 58,000 feet. Its rotation and landing speeds were terrifyingly high, the landing gear complexity and tire pressures absurdly high. Trim sensitivity was insane due to the long axial length along which thousands of pounds of fuel were distributed.

    A beautiful aircraft which nonetheless was too delicate and complicated for mere mortals to keep flying. And once ICBM's were perfected, it lost its reason for existence.

    •  One of the stories was (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      BOHICA, KenBee

      40 hrs of maintence per hr of flying.

      Supposedly John Denver's dad set 8 Aviation speed records in the B-58 in one day.  Seven of the records were for time over a course, the 8th was for setting so many records in 1 day.    

      “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

      by markdd on Mon Jul 30, 2012 at 10:53:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Ah, nostalgia for the good old days of the Cold, (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tacet, wonmug, Bisbonian, Simplify, KenBee

    Cold War idiocy.

    I know we are supposed to all be communitarian and stuff here, but I hope to God my grandkids will never have to deal with the equivalent of "duck and cover," and all the rest of a reign of terror that is still out there, thousands of nuclear weapons ready for instant detonation via every imaginable conveyance.

    I'm occasionally nostalgic for the UH-1D and Hs I fixed and flew around in, in that other idiocy known as "Vietnam." Not quite a fetish, too many memories of blood 'n stuff, and of course all my fave could do was cooperate in some retail killing. No wholesale slaughter of "enemies" whose rulers suckered them into the whole Great Game militarization thing. Which if you believe the Reaganauts and Neocons, is what brought about the collapse of the Soviet Empire. And now is on the point of catalyzing the collapse of our own rulers' imperial dreams, and of course the "economy" we have to suffer in now, where a trillion and more dollars a year are disappearing into the blackness of more "really cool weapons" and a shitload of fraud and featherbedding. Not to mention the massive destabilzation that all this causes.

    Will later generations fetiishize and fantasize over the Predator and Global Hawk? Not near as sexy as the F-104... and of course pretty much no threat to their pilots. And of course a lot of those drones crash too...

    "Is that all there is?" Peggy Lee.

    by jm214 on Mon Jul 30, 2012 at 01:28:24 PM PDT

  •  In the 70s I spent some time at (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Otis AFB in Massachusetts, which by then was mostly ANG and early-warning systems (PAVE PAWS). The units there were still flying the F-102 and the F-106, two more examples of the delta-wing configuration like the Hustler.
    It was always a joy to watch aircraft like that maneuvering.

    Everybody got to elevate from the norm....

    by Icicle68 on Mon Jul 30, 2012 at 04:54:53 PM PDT

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