Convair B-58 Hustler

Text by Divan Muller
“By tomorrow morning the Soviet Union would likely cease to be a major military power or even a major nation.” – General Curtis LeMay in 1956, explaining what would have happened if Strategic Air Command’s nuclear bombers had been sent to the East.
The Convair B-58A Hustler on display in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force - U.S. Air Force photo by Ty Greenlees
A hot aircraft for a cold war

During the 1950s and 1960s, bombers were arguably the key figures of the Cold War. At that stage, even Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) were somewhat moved to the background, as both Washington and Moscow focussed on each other’s nuclear bombers. General Curtis LeMay, in charge of Strategic Air Command (SAC), was convinced that the only way to defend NATO countries, was by keeping SAC equipped with the most destructive military assets in history. By the late 1950s, SAC’s arsenal included more than 3 000 B-47 and B-52 bombers. Subsonic bombers carrying nuclear weapons seemed quite vulnerable against high performance MiGs, so building a bomber capable of flying faster than contemporary fighters seemed like a very good idea. However, this was not a new concept; investigation into supersonic bombers had already been started back in the 1940s as GEBO I and GEBO II (GEneralised BOmber research). Convair was equipped with valuable information from German delta wing tests (conducted during the Second World War), and used it to their advantage in designing delta wing fighters and in their development of a supersonic bomber.

An atomic bomber

The air force designated Convair’s project the XB-58 and selected their prototype above Boeing’s competing aircraft. Building a large, supersonic aircraft presented tremendous challenges in terms of range and payload. The solution was quite creative: the XB-58 was designed to be too small to carry the necessary amount of fuel, along with the nuclear payload, internally. Instead, the fuel and bombs were carried in a massive pod, attached to the XB-58’s fuselage, which was held almost three metres from the ground by the landing gear. Once the aircraft reached its target, it would release the bombs, jettison the pod and fly back home (or to an in-flight refuelling tanker) with the remaining internal fuel. This feature, along with NACA’s ‘area ruling’ concept, dictated the shape and size of the aircraft. Prototype B-58s were powered by ground breaking General Electric J-79 engines – similar to those used by F-104 Starfighters and F-4 Phantoms. The XB-58 completed its maiden flight in 1956 and, after the production of several more development aircraft (YB-58s), the type finally entered service in 1960 as the ‘B-58 Hustler’.

Meet the Hustler

The Hustler’s crew consisted of a pilot, navigator/bombardier and a Defence Systems Operator (DSO). Each crew member had to be experienced in his particular duties, while being capable taking over another crew member’s workload, should there be an emergency. It seems that ‘area ruling’ also applied to Hustler crews, since those who couldn’t fit into the cramped cockpits were immediately removed from the programme. The DSO’s most important duty was to manage fuel – an important responsibility in any large, supersonic aircraft. He would also assist the pilot by reading checklists and monitoring flight instruments. Inside the cockpits, crew members would actually be sitting in escape capsules. If it were impossible to safely return the aircraft to its base, the capsule would protect the crew members while ejecting at supersonic speeds. In addition to automatically deploying chaff (to be located by friendly radar), the capsule contained essential items such as survival gear, a rifle and a radio – and would float when landing in the sea.

What happens when you’re driving a car at the speed of light and you turn on the headlights? Well, regardless of the answer, the opposite was true with the Hustler. The B-58 was armed with a six-barrel rotary 20 mm canon in the tail. Interestingly, at more than twice the speed of sound, the Hustler’s forward velocity would be higher than the muzzle velocity of the canon rounds that were being fired into the opposite direction. This means that the canon rounds would actually slowly be moving backwards – into the same direction as the Hustler. Technically, the pursuing fighter would really be flying into the bullets ‘left behind’ be the bomber. The DSO made use of a radar unit to control the canon, which could fire all of the 1 200 rounds in about 20 twenty seconds.

Avionics systems used on the B-58 were the most advanced of their time. The ASQ-42 navigation and bombing system, comprehensive Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) and other systems were unified by the first significant computer ever used on an aircraft. By bomber standards, the Hustler was quite small. For comparison, the Hustler’s empty weight was about a third of a modern B-1’s empty weight, but it could fly almost twice as fast. Of course, a B-1 Lancer can carry a much greater load over a bigger distance. The Hustler’s powerful J79-5B engines could take the aircraft to VNE (Mach 2.2 at 70 000 ft) in no time, although increased performance of Soviet missiles caused Hustler crews to focus more on low level bombing techniques.
Service and records

The SAC’s two Hustler bomber wings were kept on alert at a time when one phone call could bring nuclear holocaust to a large part of the planet - within a matter of minutes. While on alert, crews had to train to run to their ‘cocked’ aircraft (often armed with five live nuclear bombs during actual nuclear alerts) to prepare to be airborne in a matter of seconds, if they were required to do so. MITO (Minimum Interval Take Off) exercises were often timed to the second, ensuring that real scrambles would proceed flawlessly. In ‘Charlie Alert’ situations, Hustlers would be standing at the end of a runway with their engines running, their crews waiting inside 38°C cockpits. Had they been ordered to take off, they would only return after destroying strategic Soviet targets – effectively starting World War III.

Several tests were done where missiles and conventional bombs were fired or released from B-58s. In the end, Hustlers were retired from the USAF seemingly prematurely, mainly due to high operating costs, but not without first making their mark in history. The B-58 was the world’s first operational supersonic bomber and broke no less than eighteen world speed and altitude records. This month’s gate fold aircraft illustrates that the type won the Thompson Trophy by carrying a 2 000 kg load over a 1 000 km circuit in a shorter time than any aircraft before it. Many might argue that the Hustler should be credited with at least one more record – that of being the loudest aircraft ever in the US arsenal.

Even though B-58s never dropped bombs during their relatively short careers, they still accomplished exactly what world leaders had hoped for. More important than ‘taking out’ a city, these aircraft helped to balance the power between the East and the West; contributing – if only in a small way – to actually cooling down the Cold War.