B-58 Hustler - Was it Really That Bad?

B-58 Hustler – Was it Really That Bad?

In Planes, Videos by Paul ShillitoLeave a Comment


During the early days of the Cold War the U.S needed bombers that would be capable of flying from the US mainland all the way to the Soviet Union, quickly and avoiding enemy air defences by flying higher than the Soviet fighters or missiles could reach.

Two bombers emerged that would represent almost the opposite ends of the spectrum in getting the job done. At one end, the B-52 Stratofortress, a huge eight engine super heavy bomber that could trace its roots back to WW2 bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-29 Superfortress.

Then at the other end was the B-58 Hustler, a supersonic bomber that came out of high-speed research to break the sound barrier by Britain and the US just after the war. A plane so advanced that it still holds many of the speed records it set over 60 years ago and was as fast as almost any of the modern bombers and fighters of today.

This was the Tortoise and the Hair of SAC, the Strategic Air Command and we all know how that story ended.

The B-58 got a bit of a bad rap and faded away while the B-52 will be nearly 100 years old by the time they finally pull it from service in 2050. It’s already the longest-serving aircraft of any type, military or commercial.

And yet to those who flew the B-58, it was much better suited for the job of penetrating  Soviet Air Defences before Ballistic missiles removed the need for a nuclear bomber of almost any type.

But missiles would take until the 1970s to perfect so from the 1950s onwards there was a need to be able to deliver a nuclear payload both quickly and accurately over longer ranges than ever before and be able to slip past enemy air defences untouched.

The B-52 was the heavy-weight option, it might have been slow-ish and more vulnerable to attack, but with its huge carrying capacity, it could hold enough fuel and nuclear weapons to fly near the borders of the Soviet Union, 24/7, 365 days of the year in operation “Chrome Dome” from 1961 till 1968. Here they remained on continuous airborne alert, flying routes that put them in positions to attack targets in the Soviet Union, if so ordered and should nuclear bases in the U.S be destroyed by a Soviet first strike.

The other alternative was to use fast-attack aircraft, ones that could sneak in and outrun any fighters the Soviets may have.

Just four years after WW2 ended, and only 2 years after the sound barrier was broken by Chuck Yeager, plans were already underway to create what would become the world’s first supersonic bomber, the Convair B-58 Hustler, an aircraft that leapfrogged the competition and something that still looks the part today.

Technology had changed at an astonishing rate over the five or so years of WW2 and supersonic aircraft became a reality in 1947 when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the rocket-powered X-1 in October 1947

Just two years later in 1949, the Generalized Bomber Study was issued by the Air Research and Development Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for the development of a supersonic, long-range, manned bomber aircraft.

Multiple contractors submitted bids including included Curtiss,  Douglas, Boeing, Convair, North American Aviation and Martin. Two designs stood out from Boeing and Convair.

The Boeing was a supersonic version of the existing B-47 while the Covair looked like it was out of the sci-fi books. This had a two piece delta wing that itself would be a parasite bomber carried by a Convair B-36 Peacekeeper closer to the target and then dropped to continue the mission, before splitting in two, one part would be the nuclear payload and the other a smaller return aircraft for the crew.

This idea was considered overly complex and too high risk, so Convair combined it into a single aircraft and underwent numerous changes in the design before the slender four-engine delta wing design was chosen.

The B-58 Hustler was designed just a few years after the B-52, both were to be the carriers of nuclear weapons and key parts of SAC or the Strategic Air Command and yet the two could not have been any more different, like comparing a race car to a to a truck.

The B-52 was, and still is after nearly 70 years in service, a very large subsonic aircraft, carried a crew of 5 and had a wingspan of 54.6m, eight engines and a maximum bombload of 32,000kg, which included the large internal bomb bay.

The B-58 Hustler was a Mach 2 supersonic delta wing aircraft with a pencil-thin fuselage for streamlining, carried a crew of 3, had a wingspan of 17.3m, four engines, and a maximum bomb load of 8,800kg with no internal bomb bay.

Because there was no room in the fuelage for a bomb bay, the B-58 would carry all bombs and additional fuel tanks externally, including up to a 9-megaton device which was fitted into a combined weapon and fuel tank pod.

This droppable, two-component pod beneath the fuselage contained a nuclear weapon along with extra fuel, reconnaissance equipment, or other specialized gear. The lower fuel section could be jettisoned while keeping the upper weapon section until the target was reached.

The B-58 did have modified additional hardpoints to allow conventional weapons to be carried but this never happened and up until its retirement in 1970 it only carried nuclear weapons, up to five at once.

But carrying not only the biggest nuclear devices in the U.S arsenal and external fuel tanks under the belly of the planes was an accident waiting to happen.

The most infamous incident that occurred with a B-58 was at Bunker Hill Air force base, Indiana, now Grissom air force base in December 1964 when a take off drill was in progress.

Three B-58s were doing an alert drill which required a close formation take-off with just an 8-second gap between them.

As the first aircraft, throttled up to full power, the second was pulling onto the runway and through a combination of jet wash from the first aircraft and an icy runway, the second B-58 was blown off the runway and hit several hard-standing objects, causing the landing gear to collapse and rupturing a fuel tank which caught fire.

The B-58s were fast response planes, ready to reach the Soviet Union at all times and as such they were kept fully loaded with weapons and fuel, all 53,000 liters of it and upto five nuclear weapons.

Two of the three-man crew managed to escape but the third, Air Force Captain Manuel Cervantes ejected from the plane in the ejection capsule. Although he escaped the fire that engulfed the aircraft, it was too low for the parachute to open in time and it crashed on the tarmac and Captain Cervantes died later.

This was a live practice drill and as such the B-58’s were carrying up to five live nuclear weapons including a BA53, 9 megaton device. As this was a scheduled test the bombs were not fully activated but were exposed to the fire which burned for several hours and some of the conventional explosives in the warheads continued to burn for up 12 hours after.

But B-58 was about performance and that was exceptional for the time. With a light fuel load and the 62,400lbs of combined thrust from the four General Electric J79 turbojet engines with after-burners, it could climb at 46,000 ft/min or 235 m/s and attain an almost vertical climb.

Its construction was very advanced for the time and made extensive use of aluminium honeycomb panels to make the structure of the aircraft very light at just 13.8% of the gross weight and the wing was considered to be extremely thin.

The large area of the delta wing also had a low wing loading and proved to very well suited for low altitude high speed flight, much more so that the B-52.

Like the B-52 it was designed for high altitude operations with a flight ceiling of 63,400ft or 19,300m but that would come almost literally crashing back to earth when Francis Gary Powers was shot down in his U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union on the 1st May 1960, by a Surface to Air Missile, something that U.S thought that the Soviets were not capable of doing.

Now the high flying bombers would be forced to fly in below the radar sometimes just above tree top levels and the B-58 started to show its true colours.

In the almost continual training that the B-52 and B-58 crews did it was found that low altitude turbulence created much more problems for the B-52 than the B-58.

The radar cross-section or RCS of the B-52 was often said to be like that of a barn door and it was slow moving at low levels, this meant that in relative terms it had to keep lower than a B-58 which had a much smaller RCS.

Low-altitude turbulence caused problems with the long wingspan of the B-52 which would flex a lot causing them to have to pull up into smoother air but also exposing them to radar detection.

The B-58 on the other hand had a small stiff delta wing that faired much better in Low-altitude turbulence and the very small RCS meant it could often fly slightly higher at almost supersonic speeds and still not be detected by radar. The only time the radar tracking stations would know that the B-58 was there was when they flew over them and the sonic boom hit.

The B-58 was packed with the most advanced electronic navigational equipment which allowed it to fly radio silent into enemy territory and the bombing accuracy was also better than the B-52. However, though in the days of vacuum tube technology, it ran hot and needed air conditioning to keep it cool, this made it unreliable and gave the B-58 a reputation that it kept up until its retirement in 1970 as being an unreliable, expensive aircraft that was difficult to fly.

By the mid-1960s the vacuum tubes had been replaced by transistors and that part of the reliability had been fixed but accidents did occur, the landing gear was not the best and with the large external fuel tank under the belly of the plane, a simple gear collapse could turn into a raging inferno in seconds. Two B-58s crashed at the Paris airshow, one while doing aerobatic maneuvres and the other by landing early and hitting runway lighting.

It was also  said to be much more expensive to run than the B-52 but what many people didn’t know was that there were only 2 wings of B-58s, each with 39 aircraft in each compared to the B-52 Wings which had only 15 aircraft.

When comparing the two on a wing to wing basis the B-58 was more expensive but contained 2-1/2 times as many aircraft, when comparing it on a plane to plane basis it was very much more balanced.  

In a now declassified top-Secret report, the estimated annual operating costs of strategic bombers, including the costs for KC-135 tanker refueling support for both the B-52 and the B-58, showed that the B-58, on an plane-to-plane basis, was less costly to operate.

Being one of the first supersonic aircraft to go into service, crew safety when having to eject at Mach 2 was an issue and caused the death of one person and serious injury of the other two.

So, a self-contained ejection capsule was created. Each of the crew would sit in one of these, if there was a loss in cabin pressure or an ejection was required, the crew members’ legs would be pulled up and clamshell doors shut with an air tight seal which could work up to 70,000ft.

The pilot had a stick control which he could continue to fly the aircraft if no ejection was needed until they could reach a lower altitude. It could land in water and turn into a lift raft if required.

With the advanced electronics, star tracker, stable table navigation and downward firing Doppler radar for airspeed indication, the B-58 was thought more likely to evade air defenses and reach the target than a B-52.

But the top brass including SAC top man General Curtis le May disliked the aircraft  from the beginning and after a flight in one declared that it was too small, far too expensive to maintain in combat readiness, and required an excessive number of aerial refuelings to complete a mission, an issue because it was never based in the UK or Europe which would have been much closer to the targets.

When the time came the cards were stacked against the B-58 and even though the crews that flew the aircraft were convinced it did the job very well and better than any other aircraft of the time, Secretary McNamara ordered the retirement of the B-58 by 1970 on the grounds of cost.

By this time, ICBMs were also much more capable, accurate, and unstoppable. The need for a supersonic nuclear bomber no longer made economic or strategic sense.

The B-52 would carry on and become the mainstay in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, dropping every type of bomb except nuclear ones, something which doomed the B-58 elsewhere because it was a nuclear weapons platform and even after modification for non-nuclear it never dropped a single weapon in a theatre of war.

But things weren’t all bad, the B-58 set 19-speed records including the longest supersonic flight in history when in 1963 a stock serving and operational unit called “Greased Lighting” flew from Tokyo to London via Alaska in 8 hours 35 minutes, a journey of 8,028 miles or 12,920km which still stands today. One of the primary goals of the flight was to test the aluminium honeycomb construction at a sustained Mach 2.

Also the year before in Sept 1962, a B-58 set the altitude record with a 5000kg payload at 26,017m or 85,357ft.

When the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird came in to service, the only crews which the USAF had with high altitude long-duration supersonic experience were ex-B-58 Hustler and several crew members went on to fly the blackbird at the beginning of the program.

In hindsight, the B-58 Hustler was not as bad as people make out and the worst parts of its performance were used as a reason the cancel the program because of political reasons within the Airforce and government and these are still re-enforced today.

If you want a more balanced view from someone who flew in the B-58 for 10 years, check out the book by Colonel George Holt Jr, The B-58 Blunder, How the US Abandoned its best Strategic Bomber.

Whatever you think, the B-58 is still one of the best looking of the cold war aircraft, and on that I hope you enjoyed the video and I would like to thank our Patreons for their ongoing support.

Paul Shillito
Creator and presenter of Curious Droid Youtube channel and website www.curious-droid.com.

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