In the 1950s, the Mach 2+ B-58 Hustler seemed a safe bet to win the arms race.
- By Dale Smith
- Air & Space magazine, January 2006
NASM (SI Neg. #6569)
(Page 2 of 7)
According to Convair’s company newspaper, Convariety, the B-58 got its name, the “Hustler,” when the new aircraft’s performance was described to E. Stanton Brown, an engineering administrative supervisor. His response was “Sounds like it’ll really be a hustler....” The name stuck. At first, it was just the name used by the engineers working on the Convair program, but the Air Force eventually (and reluctantly) made it the aircraft’s official name.
“The purpose of the B-58 was to try to change the dynamics of any potential engagement with the Soviets,” says Richard P. Hallion, former Air Force historian. “The thinking was that a supersonic bomber would compress the Soviet’s response time of their interceptors, tracking and search radars, and even the time it would take for surface-to-air missiles to be properly aimed.”
The B-58, however, was not the unanimous choice within the leadership of the Strategic Air Command to fill that role. SAC commander Curtis LeMay wanted to start over with a different design. The project limped along with the support of the Air Research and Development Command.
“The B-58 is a major advance, considering that we are attempting to more than double our speed capabilities. For that reason, I believe that it has a place in the Air Force inventory,” argued Major General Albert Boyd in a 1951 progress report to Lieutenant General Thomas Power, then ARDC commander. “Since we are attempting such a major advance, there is very naturally a high degree of risk.”
One of the most significant technological advances was Convair’s designing the fuselage with the use of area rule, which the company first used on the F-102 supersonic interceptor. Developed by Richard T. Whitcomb of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley Field Laboratory, the area rule resulted in a “Coke bottle” shape, greatly reducing aerodynamic drag along the fuselage and wing section at both transonic and supersonic speeds—the lower the drag, the higher the speed. It took Convair several tries and the help of NACA aerodynamicist R.T. Jones to design the fuselage.
The B-58’s shapely fuselage housed a unique crew configuration. Each of the three crew members—a pilot, a navigator/bombardier, and a defensive systems operator—was housed in his own compartment. Separated by banks of equipment, the crew members had no physical contact with one another, although the crew could pass notes via a string-and-pulley system that ran along the cabin wall.
The B-58’s bullet-like speed was both a blessing and a curse to its three-man crew. The speed made the aircraft nearly impossible to pursue. But should a catastrophic airframe or system failure occur, a standard ejection at Mach 2 would be unsurvivable. Despite this fact, the first B-58s had only standard, rocket-propelled ejection seats, and the use of them resulted in several deaths. In 1962, common sense finally prevailed, and the B-58s were retrofitted with an encapsulated ejection system (see illustration, p. 68).
While the escape pod was the only way to attempt an ejection at Mach 2, some crew members were not sold on the capsule’s value. “Our crew was dispatched to pick up the first production aircraft with the capsules installed,” recalls Howard Bialas, a B-58 defensive systems operator from 1958 to 1965, the first person to accrue 1,000 hours in the bomber. He was also a member of a crew who set three world speed records in the B-58 in 1961. “We were more than hesitant to crawl into it. There was no reason to use it at Mach 2. If a structural failure occurred, you would never be able to pull the handles. And if deceleration [from an engine failure] was necessary, just hang on, [you] would be subsonic in a few seconds. Deceleration was much more rapid than acceleration. We didn’t sweat Mach 2 before we got the capsules, so why after?”