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 with its exceptional performance, the B-58 was deployed in only two operational units. One was at Carswell Air Force Base, which was later incorporated into Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, and the other was Indiana’s Bunker Hill Air Force Base (later called Grissom Air Force Base).

With so few aircraft in the fleet and a rather colorful safety record, you’d think that the B-58 was unpopular with SAC flight crews. But that wasn’t the case. “Crews wanted to get in it real bad,” says Ben Baddley. “It was an airplane careers were made from. Not many people can say they went twice the speed of sound.”

Unfortunately, while the B-58 could outrun all of its competition, the world of technology caught up with it. “Speed has a value completely by itself,” says Hallion. “It reduces engagement times and windows of opportunity the enemy has to react to you. Eventually it got to a point where that, in and of itself, wasn’t enough.”

The development of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles (one of which famously brought down Gary Powers’ U-2 in 1960), high-altitude supersonic fighters, and intercontinental ballistic missiles all spelled an end to the B-58’s useful life. “I believe we may have retired it prematurely,” Hallion says. “That airplane had growth potential, and could have been applied to long-range strike and air defense. We took it out of service just at the point when it could have been really useful.”

It wasn’t only the advancement of the enemy’s defenses that led to the demise of the B-58—political infighting and continual budgetary constraints that had plagued the airplane since its inception played their parts also. It just became too expensive. Maintenance crews reported that for every hour the B-58 flew, it took 35 hours of maintenance.

The last B-58 flew in January of 1970. Ben Baddley was the navigator/bombardier on one of the flights ferrying B-58s to their final resting place in the Arizona desert.

“It was a very sad flight for me,” he says. “The B-58 was a fantastic airplane that broke new ground in so many ways. It’s a shame people never really appreciated it for all that it could and did do.”

“Am I proud to be associated with this great aircraft?” asks Bialas. “You bet your life. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Was I ever scared? Always.”

Back in the late 1960s, the B-58’s opponents were quick to say that improvements in enemy missiles and fighters made any supersonic bomber useless, but the military minds of the 21st century have a different opinion of the value of an aircraft with paint-blistering speed—especially one that also has stealth technology.

Northrop Grumman, the company that built the B-2 stealth bomber, is working with the U.S. Air Force and NASA on the next-generation Global Strike Mission aircraft. “As the threat gets more sophisticated, we are looking at a combination of high speed and high altitude, combined with advanced high survivability, low-radar-observable technologies,” explains Charles Boccadoro, director for future strike systems at Northrop Grumman. “With supersonic speeds we can reduce travel time between vast distances by a factor of two or three. This means you can strike more targets with fewer aircraft, while increasing the survivability rate of the crew.”


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