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 3 of 7)
Although the escape capsule was credited with saving a number of crew members, Bob Norton, who flew the B-58 out of Bunker Hill Air Force Base in Indiana, remembers one instance in which it contributed to a fatal crash. “One of our guys was flying in western Texas and some hail blew the windshield out. He encapsulated himself—you could still fly the airplane with the capsule closed but you could not control the throttles. Anyway, when the windshield blew, he pulled the throttles to idle before he closed the capsule. The trouble was, he couldn’t get [the capsule] open again when the hail stopped,” he says. “With the throttles pulled back, he was going down, so he told the other crew members to bail out. Unfortunately, the navigator’s parachute didn’t deploy and he was killed. After that they installed a cable so the pilot could quickly pull the pod open in flight.”
The B-58’s wings had to have a very high strength-to-weight ratio to handle high speeds at low altitudes. “That thin wing and the delta sweep made going through the sound barrier like slicing a piece of cheese,” says Chana. “It would penetrate the sound barrier without any shaking or anything.”
Convair’s engineers used a new honeycomb sandwich design to achieve the high strength and low weight they needed. Sections of fiberglass honeycomb were sandwiched between aluminum panels and then bonded to the wing’s frame using temperature-resistant adhesives. Molding the honeycomb panels was a painstaking process, resulting in structures that were rigid and resilient—necessary traits for a wet wing holding 65,000 pounds of fuel.
The Hustler’s external pod was an integral part of its aerodynamic design. The pod comprised interchangeable compartments for weaponry, fuel, and equipment, which could be deployed separately or together. During the design phase, the configuration proved to have disadvantages as well—every time designers wanted to make a change to the airframe, they had to adjust the pod’s configuration too.
Despite its sophisticated hardware, the B-58’s limited range continued to hinder its acceptance into SAC’s arsenal, and the bomber was almost cancelled many times during development. Although progress with aerial refueling greatly extended the bomber’s range, SAC’s commanders continually debated the overall value of an airplane so dependent on refueling to complete its mission.
Major General John McConnell, SAC’s Director of Plans, declared that his command was interested in the development of the B-58 as a future weapon system but not for the SAC inventory. McConnell called the B-58 a “short-legged plane,” adding that “as long as Russia (and not Canada) remained the enemy, range was important.” The B-58’s range limitations would haunt it throughout its operational life.
“We do not know all the answers and will not until we have flown such an aircraft,” wrote Major General Boyd in defense of the B-58 program. “Thus, we must accept such a risk sooner or later if we are in fact ever going to achieve a truly supersonic bomber.” The people accepting the risk were the test pilots and bomber crews who tried to tame the Hustler.
The B-58 Hustler made its first flight on November 11, 1956, from the Convair facility at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas. The initial flight lasted 38 minutes and was made without the pod and without the use of afterburners. It was also the first time the Hustler was introduced to the public at large. During its development, little information had been leaked about the aircraft’s technological advances. About 30,000 people watched the bomber lift off for its flight that day. The first supersonic flight took place the following month.