Speed Freak

In the 1950s, the Mach 2+ B-58 Hustler seemed a safe bet to win the arms race

Convair B-58A Hustler in flight. (US Government)
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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.

While it got off to a smooth enough start, the B-58’s test and development program was a rocky one: Five of the first 20 test aircraft were lost to causes ranging from structural stress to “unexplained.” Even proponents of the program believed the accident rate was due to rushing the airplane into production before it was really ready.

“I felt then, and still feel now, that the airplane flew before it should have,” says renowned test pilot Joe Cotton, a B-58 pilot for 10 years and the first to fly the XB-70 Valkyrie in 1962. “When you look at all the flight control problems, the fuel system, the landing gear and tire problems, everything we were up against—well, I always wondered if the Hustler had first flown in 1958 [instead of in 1956], we would probably have a few more fine people alive today. But I guess they could not wait when we were fighting a cold war. We were trying to push our enemy up to higher Mach numbers and push their development efforts to their limits. We were the aggressor and were pushing technology forward.”

The B-58’s complex flight control system was a cause for continual anguish; designers, pilots, and mechanics all struggled with it. Because of the delta wing configuration, the bomber had no horizontal elevators or wing-mounted ailerons. Instead, it had a very complex system of linkages that connected the wing’s elevons (a combination of ailerons and elevators) to the large rudder.

“You would sit there on the end of the runway doing all kinds of checks on the flight controls,” Cotton says. “It was an extremely complex arrangement, centered around the power control linkage assembly. When I preflighted the airplane, I made sure the crew chief had it opened up so I could look up in there to see if there were any hydraulic leaks and that the rods were all connected—the system was a hydro-mechanical-electrical maze.” Most pilots and crew members referred to it as the “three-bicycle wreck” since it looked like the engineers had run three bikes together.

“I think the flight control system led to the loss of a few people and aircraft,” Cotton says. “It took a tremendous amount of understanding. A lot of pilots would tell you that they flew the airplane a long time before they understood what they were doing when they mixed the stick around.”

Cotton also remembers the time one of his test pilots requested dismissal from the B-58 program. “He came to me and said, ‘Joe, I quit.’ I told him I didn’t hear what he said and wanted him to think about it for two or three days—we had been investigating another B-58 crash. Anyway, he came back and said that he had really made up his mind. ‘I’ve reached a point in my career,’ he told me, ‘where I can no longer control my destiny with my right hand.’ [That was certainly a] real condemnation against the Hustler’s flight control system.”


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