As for The Right Stuff, “everybody talked about it,” says Fulton, when the film was released in 1983. He saw the movie at the base theater. “It was good entertainment,” he says. “Everybody laughed.”
“The women didn’t like it,” says Erma, “because it made us look a little stupid.”
Fulton had another motive for keeping clear of the cowboy side of test piloting. “I was so appreciative of getting to fly airplanes…To me it was ‘Don’t tilt the boat.’ ”
By the mid-1950s, aircraft designers had turned toward the triangular delta wing, which, while presenting some challenges at lower speeds, offered to transform the dreaded sound barrier from a wall into a membrane through which aircraft could pass with barely a ripple.
In the United States, Convair was leading the trend. Overseas, the delta wing had made its way onto Britain’s Avro Vulcan and Vickers Valiant bombers, and the Anglo-French Concorde.
Fulton was sent to Boscombe Downs, the British counterpart to Edwards, to learn from Britain’s experience. He flew both the Valiant and the Vulcan, and, later, the Concorde. Accustomed to the almost weatherless Edwards sky, he was somewhat bemused by the British test pilots’ willingness to fly in any weather. His hosts explained that if they couldn’t fly their tests in English weather, they couldn’t fly their tests at all.
The quick trips to see Britain’s delta-wing bombers were, in fact, a prelude to Fulton’s next assignment. Down in Fort Worth, Convair was building the B-58 Hustler, a four-engine, delta-wing bomber with the speed and high-altitude performance of a supersonic fighter. Under the fuselage, it would carry a nuclear payload in a large streamlined pod. After it dropped its bomb and discarded the pod, it would come home “clean.”
The B-58 had its quirks. For one thing, there was a large amount of fuel to be wrangled. “You go supersonic, you have to move the fuel aft,” Fulton explains. “When you slow down, if you don’t move the fuel forward, you go unstable.” You spin. “Some would say there were bad moments,” he says. “But there were test pilots standing in line to fly the B-58.” A visiting general was the first Air Force pilot to fly the B-58; Fulton was the second.
Despite its idiosyncrasies, the Hustler would become Fulton’s all-time favorite. “It was super-fast for its time,” he says. “I was project pilot and helped shape the airplane.” And there was something else. “I have never considered myself as a true fighter pilot,” he explains. “But I do enjoy flying airplanes with only one seat.”
Eventually, Fulton became project pilot for the B-58 at Edwards; his responsibilities included evaluating the Hustler’s behavior when, near maximum gross weight, an engine was lost on takeoff. The tests involved accelerating to the “decision speed” and cutting one of the outboard engines. At or above that speed, the pilot must continue the takeoff, no matter what.