Service of B-58 Hustler with USAF

Last revised July 1, 2000


By July of 1956, construction of the first B-58 was well underway. The name Hustler was officially applied to the aircraft at this time, although it had been used in-house at Convair for years before that.

The delays in the B-58 program were such that the development of the General Electric J79 engine caught up with the Convair airframe program and the initial flight testing with the J57 was found to be unnecessary. By August, the four YJ79-GE-1 engines had arrived at Convair. The YJ79-GE-1 was an early test version of the J79 and was nominally rated at 9300 lb.s.t. dry and 14,350 lb.s.t. with maximum afterburner. It was basically an experimental engine and was not capable of sustained operations with any regularity. Mean time between overhauls was very limited and numerous teething problems were encountered. It was, however, the first Mach 2-capable production turbojet in its class.

Two XB-58 prototypes were built (serial numbers 55-0660 and 55-0661). The first B-58, at that time officially designated YB/RB-58 and serialed 55-0660, was completed in late August, and was rolled out of the factory on September 4, 1956. It had little in the way of operational equipment fitted, the available space being taken up primarily by test equipment. 55-0660 made its maiden flight on November 11, 1956, taking off from the Convair Fort Worth facilities at Carswell AFB, Texas. The crew of three consisted of B. A. Erickson, pilot, John. D. McEachern systems specialist, and Charles P. Harrison as flight test engineer. The underfuselage pod was not fitted. The maximum speed reached on the first flight was Mach 0.9. Supersonic flight was first attained on December 30, at which time Mach 1.17 was attained.

Category 1 tests began in November, and lasted for about 3000 hours of flight time. On February 16, 1957, 55-0661 flew for the first time with a pod, a test MB-1 free-fall pod. On June 29, 1957, 55-0660, while carrying a "dry" MB-1 pod, reached Mach 2.03 at 43,350 feet. On June 5, 1957, the first pod drop took place, when 55-0662 released an MB-1 pod while flying at Mach 0.9 at 40,000 feet over the Holloman AFB test range. Successful drops took place at progressively higher and higher speeds, culminating on December 20 in a drop at Mach 2.0 from above 60,000 feet.

By the end of 1957, the YB-58 had attained a maximum speed of Mach 2.11 at altitudes over 50,000 feet. It had made two successful pod drops from 42,000 feet at speeds of over Mach 2. It had maintained a speed of more than Mach 1.15 for 91 minutes.

Eleven more aircraft were completed as YB-58 service test aircraft, which were used for various test programs, including flight testing with the large pod mounted on the lower fuselage. The YB-58A sere modified several times, with some being converted to TB-58 trainers whereas others were brought up to B-58A production standards. Some serious problems were found. The J79-GE-1 engines installed on the first YB-58s pending certification of the J79-GE-5s had a number of flaws. Malfunctions in the fuel system caused the fuel to slosh around in the fuel tanks when the aircraft accelerated or slowed down, causing stability problems. Problems with the afterburners caused intermittent yawing at supersonic speeds. There were acousical and sonic fatigue problems caused by excessive vibration in the engines. These affected the aft area of the fuselage and would inevitably lead to testing restrictions unless corrected. Fatigue-related cracks began to appear along the rivet lines in the forward sections of the fuselage. There were problems with the wheel braking system. Because of inadequate heat dissipation while braking, tire failures were frequent during landings at high gross weights as well at high taxiing speeds. The ejection seats originally provided were usafe at high speeds due to insufficient thrust. Slippage in the bombing navigation subsystem development program promised a lengthy delay in the delivery of the initial service aircraft.

One engineless B-58 airframe (never assigned a serial number) was allocated to long-term fatigue testing. The airframe was delivered to the Wright Development Center Structures Test Laboratory at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio by adapting B-36F 49-2677 as a transport, carrying the airframe underneath its fuselage in much the same manner as had been intended in the original parasite program. In order to do this, the B-36's inboard propellers had to be removed and a temporary shackle system was attached to the bomb hoist mechanism. The ground clearance for the suspended B-58 airframe was only 22 inches. This delivery took place on March 12, 1957. After delivery, four engines were added to the airframe to make the fatigue tests more realistic. The photographs released of the B-36/B-58 airframe combination were misunderstood by some who imagined that the B-36 actually launched the B-58 in midair.

The first YJ79-GE-5s arrived at Convair on September 27, 1957. Refuelling tests began on June 11, 1958. The B-58 proved to be entirely compatible with the KC-135 tanker.

Category 2 tests officially started in March of 1959, but actually began in February of 1958 since some tests normally done under Category I were done under Category II. This was because of the November 1957 decision to consolidate the B-58 test program under the weapons system office. These tests included pod drops and aerial refuelling. Category II testing was completed on June 30, 1960, after achieving 1216 flight hours in 256 sorties. Two YB-58As were flight tested from Edwards AFB, California and from Convair's Fort Worth airfield. Another aircraft went to Eglin AFB, Florida for climatic hangar evaluation. The accelerated service test of the J79-GE-5 engine was started under Category II, but completed under Category III when SAC crews accumulated 170 additional hours of flight. Some seven test aircraft were lost between December 1958 and June 1960, including one which disintegrated in flight.

The B-58 only carried one pilot and the three crew positions were in tandem. In flight, there was no physical access between the pilot's and navigator's compartments, which made training a student B-58 pilot very difficult. To solve this problem, the USAF ordered 9 YB-58As to be converted to trainer aircraft as TB-58A. One aicraft crashed before conversion, so only eight YB-58As wer actually modified.

On June 11, 1959, the Air Force announced that it planned to purchase 290 B-58s, including the 30 pre-production and test aircraft. They would be used to equip a 5-wing force. It was anticipated that the first tactical wing would be ready in November of 1960.

The first combat-ready production aircraft (B-58A number 31, 59-2428) was ready in the spring of 1959. In the meantime, the B-58 program was once again in jeopardy. On July 14, 1959, General Thomas Power was informed by the Pentagon that there were insufficient funds to satisfy all of SAC's needs. At that time, some 290 B-58s were scheduled for production, at a peak rate of 6 per month. There would have to be major cutbacks. By December of 1959, SAC had scaled back its plans and was now going to buy only 148 aircraft. The Pentagon was still unhappy with the current progress of B-58 development--major testing and operational dates had still not been met and many unsolved maintenance and engineering problems still remained, and there was insufficent money for adequate spare parts. Numerous specific problems remained with the AN/ASQ-41 bombing/navigation system and the AN/ALQ-16 electronics countermeasures system. The cost of the 118 aircraft now scheduled through FY 1961 was estimated at about 3 billion dollars, which made each B-58 literally worth more than its weight in gold. In addition, the the first operational squadron was now delayed from June to December of 1960 for activation, and the first wing of 36 rather than 45 aircraft would be ready in August of 1961.

Several accidents had revealed that the Convair-developed ejection seats were not sufficient to protect the crew throughout the B-58's performance envelope. Consequently, an encapsulated seat built by Stanley Aviation Corporation of Denver, Colorado was adopted.

Due to the delays in the B-58 program, the various aircraft that had been delivered had great variation in equipment, systems updates, maintenance requirements, and capabilites. As a result, the USAF instituted the *Senior Flash-Up* program to update and normalize the aircraft in the inventory. The first aircraft to go through the program was delivered to SAC on November 7, 1960. Among the changes introduced were anti-icing systems, electronic countermeasures gear, an improved HACON and TACAN installations, a structurally improved vertical fin and fuselage embennage systems.

As the flight test program neared completion, the Air Force was faced with the problem of what to do with the flight test aircraft. Many of them had low times on their airframes and were hence still viable from a useful life standpoint. It was decided that these aircraft would be updated an configured for operational service under a program named Junior Flash-Up, which started in February of 1960. Later, other low airframe time pre-production aircraft were added to the program. Eventually, eleven of the 17 test aircraft produced under the second B-58 contract were upgraded.

The original order for YB-58As was altered and the last YB-58A aircraft were built as RB-58A reconnaissance aicraft. These aircraft were intended to carry a reconnaissance pod, but most were used in test programs along with the XB-58 and YB-58A aircraft. Most of the RB-58A aircraft were later brought up to B-58A productin standards and were issued to operational units.

On October 15, 1959, 58-1015 flew from Seattle, Washington to Carswell AFB in 70 minutes at an average speed of nearly 1320 mph. This was the first sustained Mach 2 flight.

The B-58 accident rate in 1959 and 1960 had been alarmingly high, which led SAC to delay acceptance of excecutive responsibility for the aircraft. The first accident had taken place on Dec 16, 1958, near Cannon AFB, NM when 58-018 was lost. The accident was attributed to a loss of control during normal flight when autotrim and ratio changer were rendered inoperative due to an electrical system failure. On May 14, 1959, 58-1012 was destroyed by fire during a refueling operation at Carswell AFB. 58-1017 was destroyed on September 16 of that year when a tire blew during takeoff from Carswell AFB. On October 27, 55-669 was destroyed near Hattiesburg, Mississippi when it lost control during normal flight. On November 7, 55-664 was destroyed during a high-speed test flight near Lawton, Oklahoma when it disintegrated in midair. Convair test pilot Raymond Fitzgerald and Convair flight engineer Donald A. Siedhof were both killed. The flight was attempting to collect vertical fin side loads data under the conditions of the loss of an engine at high speed. A friend of mine witnessed this accident from the ground. Although the cause of the accident was never adequately explained, it appears that a design flaw in the aircraft's flight control system and defects in the integrity of the vertical fin structure were to blame. There is also the possiblility that when the number 4 engine was purposely shut down for the test, number 3 lost thrust as well. On April 22, 1960 a failure of the Mach/airspeed/air data system caused the loss of 58-1023 near Hill AFB, Utah. On June 4, 1960, 55-0667 was lost due to pilot error while flying at supersonic speed near Lubbock, Texas.

The unusually high accident rate made SAC apprehensive about the reliability of the aircraft in service, and led to postponement of Category III testing. In addition, the Fitzgerald accident raised questions about certain aspects of the control system. As a result, B-58s were restricted to subsonic flight only for nearly a year afterwards until the control system and tail structure could be fixed.

By mid-1960, the combination of a shortage of funds, competition from other weapons systems, and a variety of technological difficulties had combined to cause a delay in the B-58's initial deployment. Although the aircraft had been scheduled to become operational in June, it appeared that the first wing would not be activated until January of 1961. SAC was still planning on three B-58 wings, since they concluded that a small, fully operational B-58 force would force the Soviet Union to develop a fleet of Mach 2 interceptors that would cover all possible targets or accept the amount of destruction that a three-wing force could inflict. Most of the major targets west of the Urals would be vulnerable to an attack by refuelled B-58s, with the B-52 and B-47 fleets providing mutual support for penetration of Soviet early warning and defense nets. With Mach 2 high altitude performance, the B-58 would greatly improve the overall strategic capability of SAC.

SAC had assumed that a three-wing B-58 fleet would be funded. The first two wings would be based at Carswell AFB and Bunker Hill AFB, but SAC was not sure where the third one would be located. General Power, Lt. Gen. J.P. McConnell, and other SAC officers argued that the third wing should be at Little Rock AFB in Arkansas. General Power asked his staff to start planning for the aircraft, along with a fleet of KC-135 tankers, to be located at this base.

In January of 1960, the USAF announced its intention to activate the first B-58 Wing. This was to be the 43rd BW, at that time based at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona. The 43rd BW would be moved to Carswell AFB starting on March 1. The 3958th Operational, Test, and Evaluation Unit (then functioning as an integral unit at Carswell) would be transferred to the 43rd BW upon its arrival. On August 1, 1960, the USAF finally formally assumed B-58 operations responsibility and began Category III testing. 59-2436, the first fully-operational Hustler equipped with all tactical systems, was delivered to the 43rd. Two weeks later, the first TB-58A was delivered to Carswell AFB.

The 43rd BW received its first B-58 on March 15, 1960. On March 23, a test unit B-58A (55-0671), remained airborne for 18 hours 10 minutes while averaging an airspeed of 620 mph over 11,000 miles. This was apparently the longest-lasting single flight ever by a B-58. The 43rd BW received deliveries beginning in December of 1960. However, technical difficulties continued to plague the B-58, and on March 10, 1961 SAC had once again to set back the operational readiness date of the 43rd BW.

The second Wing to receive the B-58 was the 305th BW at Bunker Hill AFB. Equipping of the wing began in December of 1960. Following official instigation of the reorganization of the unit on January 9, 1961 and its attainment of wing status on February 1, the first aircraft was flown to Bunker Hill on May 11. Two months later, the first TB-58A arrived. The wing was declared operationally ready in August of 1962.

In late 1960, the USAF decided to publicize the capabilities of its new B-58s by capturing a series of aviation records. The first of these was a project known as Quick Step I in which 59-2442 of the 43rd BW set three new speed-with-payload records (0, 1000 and 2000 kilogram payloads) by flying at a speed of 1061 mph over a closed circuit 2000-kilometer course on January 12, 1961. On the same flight, the crew also set a 1000-kilometer record by flying at an average speed of 1200.19 mph. The closed circuit and 2000-kg records still stand.

On January 14, 59-2441 set three international speed-with payloads by flying at a speed of 1284.73 mph over a 1000-km closed circuit. The crew of 59-2441 (Lt. Col. Harold Confer, Lt. Col. Richard Weir, and Major Howard Bialas) were awarded the 1961 Thompson Trophy for this feat.

On May 10, 1961, 59-2451 crewed by Major Elmer Murphy, Major Eugene Moses and Lt. David Dickerson, flew a 1073-kilometer closed course at an average speed of 1302.07 mph, taking 30 minutes and 43 seconds to complete the course. This won the Bleriot Trophy, which had been established back in 1930 by the famous French aviator M. Louis Bleriot to be awarded permanently to any aircraft flying for at least a half-hour at an average speed of 2000 km/hr (1242.74 mph).

On May 26, 1961, 59-2451, crewed by Maj. William Payne, Capt. William Polhemus, and Capt. Raymond Wagener, while enroute to the 1961 Paris Air Show, set a New York-to-Paris speed record, covering the 3626.46 mile route in 3 hours 19 minutes 58 seconds (an average speed of 1089.36 mph. The flight also set a Washington DC to Paris (3833.4 miles) speed record of 3 hours 39 minutes 48 seconds (average speed of 1048.68 mph). The crew was later awarded the prestigious Mackay and Harmon Trophies for this flight. Sadly, the return flight crew, consisting of Maj. Elmer Murphy, Major Eugene Moses, and Lt. David Dickerson (the same crew who had won the Bleriot Trophy two weeks earlier) were killed when 59-2451 crashed on June 3 following departure from Le Bourget Field.

Further records were set on March 5, 1962, when 59-2458 crewed by Capt. Robert Sowers, Capt. Robert Macdonald, and Capt John Walton set a trascontinental speed record by flying nonstop from Los Angeles to New York and back again. The first leg (Los Angeles to New York) was completed in 2 hours 0 minutes 56.8 seconds at an average speed of 1214.71 mph. The return leg was completed in 2 hours 15 minutes 48.6 seconds, at an average speed of 1081.77 mph. This return flight was particularly notable, because it was the first transcontinental flight in history that moved across the country at at a speed faster than the rotational speed of the earth.

The 43rd BW, which had been prevented from being declared combat-ready by the B-58's teething problems, was finally declared as such in August of 1962. The Wing was placed on alert in September of 1962.

On September 18, 1962, 59-2456, with a crew consisting of Major Fitzhugh Fulton, Captain W. R. Payne, and civilian flight test engineer C. R. Haines was used to set two more records. During a zoom climb over Edwards AFB, the aircraft reached an altitude of 85,360.84 feet while carrying a payload of 5000 kg, winning the crew the 1962 Harmon trophy. This broke two previous Soviet-held records.

On October 16, 1962, 61-2059 crewed by Major Sidney Kubesch, Major John Barrett and Captain Gerard Williamson, flew supersonically from Tokyo to London, spending five hours at supersonic speed. The flight set five world absolute records.

Just as the point of entry of the B-58 into active service, it was revealed that the number of B-58 wings wad going to be one less than that which SAC had anticipated, and 30 aircraft ordered for FY 1962 were cancelled. A wing of B-47 Stratojets would be retained to offset the reduction. Unit cost of the B-58 had jumped to 14 million dollars, which made the aircraft almost three times as expensive as a production B-52G. The delays in the B-58 program had now put the Hustler in direct competition with the B-70 program for funding, and the B-70 was at that time pictured as the next step in the USAF's bomber program.

In spite of its initial teething troubles and the long delays in initial entry into service, by the mid-1960s, the B-58 had become a fairly effective weapons system. By the end of 1962, USAF crews had made over 10,500 flights and loges 53,00 hours (1150 of them supersonic, including 375 at Mach 2). Initially, B-58 training was conducted by the 43rd Combat Crew Training School. From 1960 through 1964, this unit fulfilled the requirements of both its parent 43rd BW and the 305th BW. In August of 1964, the 305th activated its own CCTS.

In a little-known attempt to increase the flexibility of the B-58 as a weapons system, experiments were carried out in April of 1964 under a program known as Operation Bullseye to see if the B-58 could carry and deliver conventional bombs. In coordination with Republic F-105Ds and McDonnell F-4C/Ds, sorties were flown using B-58s as lead ships and pathfinders and as independent strike aircraft. It was demonstrated that the B-58 could carry iron bombs on the wing root bomb racks that had earlier been added to accommodate four Mk. 43 nuclear weapons. Iron bombs of varying weights up to 3000 pounds were dropped, usually from low altitudes and at speeds of 600 knots. Almost all of the drops were visual, with the AN/ASQ-42 system rarely being used. However, the fear that the B-58's integral wing tanks would make it vulnerable to ground fire during low altitude delivery lead to the abandonment of the program.

The active service life of the B-58 was destined to be rather short. Phaseout of the B-58 fleet was ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in December of 1965, since it was felt that the high-altitude performance of the B-58 could no longer guarantee success against increasingly-sophisticated Soviet air defenses. At that time, Secretary McNamara also announced that the FB-111A would be built. McNamara proposed that the new FB-111A, along with improvements in the Minuteman and Polaris missiles and modernization of the subsonic B-52 would enhance strategic deterrence and make the B-58 superfluous to the needs of the USAF. Although SAC had never been happy with the relatively limited range of the B-58 and felt that the Air Force through congressional pressure had forced the B-58 on them, the aircraft had gone through a long gestation period during which lots of bugs had been wrung out of the system, and it was now thought to be a valuable and effective weapons system. Consequently, SAC pressed the Defense Department for the retention of the B-58, at least until 1974. However, the decision of 1965 was to stand.

Another factor was the B-58's relatively high cost as compared to the B-52 and B-47. The unit cost of the B-58 was 33.5 million dollars as compared to 9 million for the B-52 and 3 million for the B-47. The cost of maintaining and operating two B-58 wings equaled the cost of maintining six B-52 wings. In addition, the B-58 was quite costly to maintain.

The B-58's high accident rate was probably its most serious failing. Out of the 116 aircraft built, some 26 were destroyed in accidents, and several additional aircraft were damaged seriously enough to prevent them from being returned to flight status. Most of the accidents took place during the B-58's flight test and operational evaluation period, with a lower attrition rate actually being attained late in its operational career. Many of the accidents were due to plain carelessness and were not the aircraft's fault, but others were a result of mechanical or systems failures that were basically a consequence of the B-58's rapid leap forward in technology. Nevertheless, there was more than a slight residual dislike for the aircraft among the SAC and USAF hierarchy.

On October 27, 1969, Secretary of Devense Melvin Laird announced a round of base closings. Included on the list were Little Rock AFB and Bunker Hill AFB (now named Grissom AFB, in honor of the astronaut Virgil Grissom who had been killed along with fellow astronauts Edward White and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 capsule fire on January 27, 1967). Although these two bases would remain intact as military bases, they would lose their B-58 wings. The aircraft would be removed from the inventory and scrapped.

The first B-58 to go to the boneyards was 59-2446, which flew to Davis Monthan AFB on November 5, 1969. Once underway, the B-58 retirement program moved relatively rapidly. The retirement was completed on January 16, 1970, when the 305th Bomb Wing's last two B-58s (55-0662 and 61-0278) were flown to Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona for storage. Once their B-58s were in storage, the 43rd BW was temporarily inactivated, but was immediately reactivated with the assets of the 3960th Strategic Wing at Anderson AFB on Guam. The 305th BW was converted to an inflight-refuelling wing using KC-135As.

By the end of January 1970, all surviving B-58As and TB-58As were in storage at Davis Monthan AFB. Others had been placed in museums. After all salvageable equipment was removed, the 80-odd B-58s were apraylatted and stored at MASDC. Following over a half-decade sitting out in the Arizona, all of the MASDC Hustlers were sold at action for scrap.

Only two USAF Bomb Wings operated the B-58:


Sources:


  1. American Combat Planes, Third Enlarged Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

  2. Post World War II Bombers, Marcelle Size Knaack, Office of Air Force History, 1988.

  3. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  4. Convair B-58 Hustler: The World's First Supersonic Bomber, Jay Miller, Aerofax, 1997.