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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Even in its operational life, the Hustler maintained its reputation as a dangerous airplane to fly. Darrell Schmidt, a B-58 pilot from 1966 to 1970, says, “There were 116 aircraft built, 26 of which were destroyed in accidents, with 36 crew members killed. If that doesn’t fit the definition of ‘dangerous,’ I don’t know what would.”

B.J. Brown, who flew as a B-58 navigator/bombardier in the early 1960s, feels differently. “I don’t have a clue as to where the B-58 got that reputation [for being dangerous],” he says. “There were a lot of men killed in the B-47...a lot of men. And I don’t know that [the B-47] had a ‘dangerous’ stigma attached to it.”

“A racehorse is dangerous if it isn’t treated with tender loving care, and the same was true of the Hustler,” says Howard Bialas. “It was a demanding bird, requiring constant attention, but it rewarded you with experiences unknown to mere mortals. Moving through the heavens at 20 miles per minute is an awesome experience.”

The airplane’s accident rate may reflect the fact that there was no two-seat trainer for the early pilots. Confer remembers early checkout rides as being not much more than an over-the-shoulder briefing.

“[Early in] the program there were no dual-control B-58s,” wrote Confer in Daedalus Flyer, a military pilot association magazine. “After extensive ground school at the Convair plant, the first flight was a solo. At the aircraft, a test pilot would give the new pilot a briefing on the 10 ‘killer’ items in the cockpit—as in ‘Always do this; never do that; and don’t ever touch that switch—good luck!’ ”

For the most part, pilots came away from the Hustler feeling it was a machine that demanded respect and attention. “You just had to think ahead of the airplane all the time—that was the secret to it,” explains Norton. “Transition was tough because the B-58 climbed at 458 knots indicated—faster than the B-52 flew. So it took some getting used to. Those first couple of takeoffs were really exciting.

“I’d say the toughest part was landing…. You came in at 12 degrees nose up, so you really couldn’t see the runway too far ahead of you…. With a normal radar approach your touchdown point was 1,500 feet down the runway. Well, in the B-58, at the high nose-up angle, it wanted to coast down the runway, so our theoretical touchdown point was actually 2,000 feet short of the runway.”

The first dual-seat trainer version, the TB-58A, was delivered to the Air Force in 1960. The TB-58 and the B-58 had identical flight characteristics, including Mach 2 capability. Once the trainers entered service, the number of accidents in operational B-58s decreased dramatically. But pilots weren’t the only crewmen challenged by the aircraft.

The B-58’s fuel system was highly complicated, and required eagle-eye monitoring and control. At Mach 2, the B-58’s center of lift naturally shifted aft, and the shift required a comparable center of gravity shift, which was achieved by transferring fuel to the balance tanks. Ideally, the defensive systems operator relied on his fuel-flow instrument and CG indicator—when everything was working correctly, that is. “Consider what could happen when one or more (and on rare occasions, all) fuel gauges failed,” says Phil Rowe, a defensive systems operator from 1960 to 1965. “How would you know where the fuel was and how much there was? The answers lay in the records and logs the DSO kept…[but] let’s add the complication of fuel transfer valves that might or might not open or close on command. They [failed] with some regularity, just to keep us on our toes. And, oh yes, there was one more nuance to make life interesting. There was a valve between the aft main and the aft balance tank. It was normally kept closed—except when it wasn’t.”

When the airplane was light, and the four General Electric J79 engines were in afterburner, the B-58 could climb at an astonishing 46,000 feet per minute. All that power was put on display during the early 1960s when the B-58 fleet broke a number of speed and range records (with aerial refueling). It won the Thompson Trophy, Bendix Trophy, France’s Blériot Cup, the MacKay Trophy, and the Harmon Trophy. Howard Bialas and his crew were the only bomber crew ever to receive the Thompson Trophy.


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