If a plane could get by on coolness alone the B-58 would still be in service today.
While it was an amazing piece of engineering for its time, the supersonic B-58 was arguably obsolete the day it went into service.
While never tested in combat the B-58 was done in by high operating costs and a frightening accident rate.
Proof you can't get by on looks alone.
The genesis of the B-58 goes all the way back to an Air Force bomber study in 1949. Convair (today General Dynamics) submitted a bid for a delta-winged, jet powered bomber capable of 1,000 mph. Pretty amazing stuff when you realize that the sound barrier had only been broken two years prior.
1958 - When happy looking white people drove Buicks and B-58s soared protectively overhead.
In 1953 the Air Force awarded Convair the contract to build the first supersonic bomber, a further development of the design proposed in 1949. In just three years Convair had a prototype in flight testing. The B-58A officially entered service in 1960.
B-58 in formation with B-36 and B-52. Guess which one is still in service.
It was an expensive program. In today's dollars a single B-58 would cost $96 million. Only 116 were built.
It was an amazing machine, state of the art for its time. Looking a bit like a larger version of Convair's delta wing fighters. It had a large delta wing swept at 60 degrees. Four afterburning J-79 turbojets were slung under the wing.
The three-man crew of Pilot, Navigator and Defensive Systems Operator (DSO) sat one behind the other, each in their own ejection capsule.
Pilot, Nav and DSO in tandem. The space between the Pilot and Navigator housed the avionics.
Pilot's instrument panel. On the right you see the automated fuel system, which was not considered to be reliable.
Rumor has it that the B-58 ejection training involved stuffing yourself into a garbage can and having someone kick you down a flight of stairs.
B-58 Ejection Capsule - normal position
They actually tested this by ejecting a bear
. Seriously. I can't imagine the bear was very happy about the whole idea. Be warned - this video shows footage of live animal tests.
Ejection capsule closed.
Crew accommodations were a bit tight. You were sitting in a fighter-type cockpit with no room to stand up. The "facilities" consisted of a bottle to pee in. If you had to do the other one you were out of luck. Each person was in their own cockpit with only a clothesline and an envelope (very high tech) to pass notes or small objects between cockpits.
I think that would get a bit cramped after 8 hours. Note the early pressure suit he's wearing. This predates the addition of ejection capsules. He's sitting in a normal ejection seat.
Defensive armament was a single 20mm rotary cannon in the tail. The DSO operated the gun by remote control.
Offensive weapons load originally was a single free-fall nuclear bomb. This was part of the large pod carried under the belly, which also contained fuel. The idea was to burn the external fuel on the way to the target, drop the entire pod with the bomb in it and then escape in a clean configuration.
This never worked quite right so it was later replaced with a two-piece pod which allowed the fuel to be jettisoned while retaining the bomb. Later the planes were modified to allow 4 additional bombs to be carried under the belly.
B-58 modified to carry 4 additional nuclear weapons.
The plane was "bleeding edge" technology for the time.
Flight controls consisted of "elevons" which performed the functions of elevators and ailerons simultaneously. These were controlled through a very complex hydraulic/mechanical system that crews called the "three bicycle wreck" located in the aft fuselage. Pre-flight inspection consisted of "look in there and make sure nothing is leaking or hanging loose" because nobody really understood how it worked!
An automated fuel system was supposed to keep the plane within its center of gravity limits. It wasn't trusted by the crews and the DSO had to frequently calculate the center of gravity, especially during supersonic flight when fuel was being burned quickly.
The large external pod housed fuel and a nuclear bomb. The nose gear had a very complicated retraction mechanism to clear the pod.
To aid in the navigation the plane had an automated asto-tracker. Pretty heady stuff for the late 1950s. There was even an automatic warning system that played tape-recorded messages in the crew's headsets when a failure occurred. A common feature today but cutting edge stuff for the time.
Higher and faster was the mantra in the late 1950s and the "Hustler" as it was called really delivered.
Performance was breathtaking. Lightly loaded it had a thrust-to-weight ratio of almost one to one and a climb rate of 46,000 feet per minute! Top speed was Mach 2+ and service ceiling was greater than 60,000 feet. Numerous records were set by B-58s, some of which still stand.
The longest supersonic flight on record was set by a B-58 flying Tokyo to London (just over 8000 miles) in 8 hours 35 minutes.
B-58 crews were hand-picked from other SAC bomber squadrons. Pilots initially trained on the F-102 to gain familiarity with handling a delta winged aircraft. Training was completed in the TB-58 trainer version (a normal B-58 only had one set of flight controls).
You may be cool, but you'll never be this cool.
The skin heating from sustained supersonic speed was so great that the wheel wells had to be pressurized and air conditioned to keep the tires from exploding.
Despite its very impressive performance numbers the B-58 was a troubled aircraft which contributed to its rather short service life.
It was a demanding and dangerous plane to fly. Takeoff and landing speeds were very high. At typical weights approach speed would be 220 knots with touchdown at 180 knots! The tall, skinny landing gear was delicate and nose gear failures were common.
B-58 on landing roll. Note the nose high attitude and poor visibility over the nose.
B-58 after nose gear collapsed.
The other big killer was losing an engine at supersonic speed. The resulting departure from controlled flight could be so violent that even ejection was impossible.
A whopping 22% of the fleet was lost to accidents in just 10 years. If we still had B-58s today, well we wouldn't have any because they all would have crashed by now.
B-58 landing pattern
Tricky handling weren't the types only flaws. The avionics were cooled by the air conditioning system, which was a constant problem. The vacuum tube avionics were located in a "doghouse" between the pilot and navigator. When the avionics overheated, and they regularly did, smoke would fill the cockpit.
I've met exactly one person who flew these. He said he enjoyed flying them but he didn't consider the heading system to be very good which made accurate bombing difficult. Not a big drawback in a nuclear bomber but it would have made conventional bombing problematic.
No effort was ever made to equip the B-58 for conventional bombing. Likewise no standoff missile was ever carried, although the idea was considered.
What really did the plane in was that it was obsolete shortly after it became operational. When Francis Gary Powers was shot down by an SA-2 at 70,000 feet it was determined that the only way a bomber was going to survive was at very low altitude.
The B-58 was not particularly well suited to low level operations. By some accounts it rode very rough down low and the crews took a real beating. The J-79s guzzled fuel down low, greatly reducing the B-58's already marginal range.
Curtis LeMay summed it up in one sentence:
The B-58 is a great airplane, if you're going to war with Canada.
Cost was another big problem. They were as expensive to operate as they were to build. It cost 3 times as much to operate a B-58 as a B-52. The B-58 fleet was retired in 1970, only 8 years after the last one rolled off the production line.
It was replaced by the FB-111, which was better suited for the low level penetration role.
B-58s lined up at the boneyard in Tucson.
The guy on the left is Colonel Henry J. Deutschendorf, who set several records while flying B-58s. He used to complain about his worthless son who only wanted to play his guitar all day. You knew his son as John Denver.
Colonel Henry J. Deutschendorf and crew.
Another celebrity B-58 connection. Jimmy Stewart (himself a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserves) narrates this cold war propaganda film featuring the B-58.
Here's another film showing Minimum Interval Takeoff testing. The narration is pretty dry but there's some great footage.
Despite all its problems, would I fly one if the opportunity was offered? Heck yeah! It's just that cool.