The planned replacement for the B-52 was the Convair B-58 Hustler. With its delta wing and streamlined engine pods, the B-58 looked more like a fighter than a bomber.
"Icons of Aviation History" is a diary series that explores significant and historic aircraft.
Even before the B-52 began flying, the Air Force was already planning a replacement. Although the Buff had long range and heavy payload, it was only capable of subsonic flight, and by 1953 the Pentagon wanted a supersonic bomber that could speed over the USSR at high altitude and accurately drop nuclear weapons. The commander of the Strategic Air Command, Curtis LeMay, was against the concept, arguing that the fuel requirements for supersonic flight would be impossible and that a supersonic mission would therefore demand that any such bomber would be small (and lack the ability to carry a large bomb load) and short-range (unable to reach the Soviet Union without air-to-air refueling). But the Air Force decided to go ahead with the project despite LeMay's objections, and the project became known as the XB-58.
Convair had already produced a number of delta-wing fighter designs. These came about when it was discovered that highly-swept narrow wings were too unstable, and making the wings into a solid triangular shape solved the problem. So Convair now adopted the same basic design for the supersonic bomber.
The B-58 was powered by four J79-GE-1 jet engines which could push it to Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. The original design had two of the engines in pods and two on the upper wing, but this was quickly altered to place all four engines under the wings. The plane was too small to have an internal bomb-bay large enough for hydrogen bombs, so the nuclear payload would be carried in an external aerodynamic pod under the belly. The pod was divided into two sections: one carried the bomb, and the other carried a fuel tank. Later, four hardpoints were added under the wings to allow for four more externally-mounted lightweight B61 nuclear bombs. There were also some experiments with carrying nuclear-armed air-to-ground missiles.
The prototype B-58 was rolled out in 1956. It had been developed under the codename “Hustler”, and now this became the official Air Force nickname for the bomber. The Hustler was sleek and clean and fast, and it looked like something Captain Kirk would fly. Newly-developed mathematics was used to design the fuselage for maximum speed, giving it a narrow-waisted “coke bottle” shape. Even the material it was made from was futuristic--the aircraft’s skin, which needed to withstand the high temperatures produced by supersonic flight, was made using an alloy of magnesium and thorium called “mag-thor”,which was actually radioactive, though not enough to present a danger to the crew of three.
The Pilot, Bombardier/Navigator and Defense Systems Operator sit three-in-a-row inside the long cockpit, each with their own compartment. The Navigator is aided by an inertial navigational system, based on gyroscopes, that was dubbed the “stable table”. The Defense Systems Operator operates the remotely-aimed 6-barrel 20mm Vulcan gatling gun in the tail.
There are redundant air conditioning systems—not for the crew's comfort, but to keep the electronics systems at a suitable temperature. The crew are each enclosed in a jettisonable pressurized capsule that serves as an escape system in the event of an emergency at supersonic speed. The B-58 was also one of the first Air Force planes to have an automatic voice warning system in the cockpit, which was given a female voice to immediately attract the pilot's attention—now familiar to pilots as “Bitching Betty” (though the B-58 crews reportedly referred to her as “Sexy Sally”).
But by the time the first production bomber was deployed in 1959, the Hustler was already running into trouble. Although SAC had enjoyed extravagant funding for years, it now faced budget cuts, and the planned B-58 force was reduced from 290 bombers in three wings to 148 bombers in two wings. The new B-58 also proved to be a very difficult plane to fly: of the 116 that were actually built (30 were used only for testing and training, and 17 were reconnaissance versions), 26 were destroyed in crashes which killed 36 flight crew members. In total, the program cost almost three billion dollars—meaning that each Hustler that entered service had cost literally more than its weight in gold.
The Air Force responded to all of this with an intense PR effort to publicize the airplane, and several public efforts were made to set a series of new speed records. At various times, the B-58 had won the Bleriot trophy, the Thompson trophy, the Mackay trophy, the Bendix trophy, and the Harmon trophy. SAC helped to make a Hollywood film titled “B-58: Champion of Champions”, featuring Jimmy Stewart. Plans were meanwhile made for a B-58B version, which would have more powerful engines, a canard added to the airframe for better handling, and the ability to carry conventional bombloads.
Finally, however, the development of new Soviet radar-guided surface-to-air missiles in the1960s made all high-altitude bombers vulnerable, no matter how fast they were. The mission which the Hustler had been designed for now no longer existed, and it was no longer viewed by the Air Force as an effective bomber platform. Some of the bombers were converted into a fast reconnaissance plane instead, and the rest were retired.
By 1970 all of the B-58s had been withdrawn from service, and the plane it was supposed to replace—the B-52—would go on to serve for another half-century.
Today, only eight Hustlers survive, and are on display at various Air Force Bases around the country. One of these is at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona—this was the last B-58 to roll off the assembly line. The Hustlers at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton and the SAC Museum in Nebraska were both used to set new speed records.
NOTE: As some of you already know, all of my diaries here are draft chapters for a number of books I am working on. So I welcome any corrections you may have, whether it's typos or places that are unclear or factual errors. I think of y'all as my pre-publication editors and proofreaders. ;)