On November 11, 1956 three men took the flightdeck of the Convair B-58 Hustler for the first flight of the supersonic bomber. Beryl A. Erickson, John D. McEachern and Charles P. Harrison left Fort Worth, Texas on a very quick 38-minute flight. The aircraft would see no equal for the next decade and could have easily turned the heat up to “vaporize” during the cold war. Fortunately, Hustlers were never used in anger.
The Mission and the Crew
The Hustler began life as the YB/RB-58 and later evolved into the XB-58. All of them would see service with the USAF Strategic Air Command. Normally, the crew of three was represented as pilot, navigator-bombardier and defensive systems operator. For the test flight program, the crew acted as flight test pilot, flight observer and flight-test engineer and were seated line abreast in individual cockpits, each with standard ejection seats. Later, the B-58 was outfitted with Stanley Escape Capsules, an encapsulated ejection seat with clamshell doors to protect the crew during any egregiously high-speed bailouts.
The B-58 was a complex and ground-breaking airframe bristling with technological advances and it was intended to deliver nuclear weapons. Only the most talented, experienced crews were selected to fly the Hustler. Ironically, though the aircraft was never used in combat, it was quite deadly. At least 25 B-58s (roughly one out of every four) were lost to crashes — two at different Paris Air Shows.
Special Design, Deadly Purpose
The B-58 was a delta wing design — the first bomber with this planform. The fuselage used an area rule (or ‘coke bottle’) design to improve aerodynamic efficiency. The aircraft had elevons at the wing’s trailing edge instead of standard ailerons and elevator. B-58s also used an external pod for weapons carriage, eschewing the bomb bay of other military bombers. The aircraft had defensive capabilities supplied through a multi-barreled 20mm ‘stinger’ cannon in the tail and used a drag chute for landing, to compliment a characteristic nose high flare that maximized the aerodynamic braking supplied by its delta wing.
Weapons Delivery There were two main types of pod; one combined a thermonuclear weapon and fuel in the same pod, the other was termed the Two Component Pod (TCP). The TCP was composed of a large external fuel cell that contained an independent, compartmentalized inner pod. When fuel from the outer cell was expended, that cell was jettisoned to reduce drag. The inner pod (the two-part pod) was retained because, along with fuel, it also contained the weapon. Both pods were made of aluminum skin bonded over a honeycomb core, this added strength and spared the pods’ contents from some of the heat generated by the friction of airflow at supersonic speeds.
The B-58 set speed records without effort. Often, to set a new record, all the crew needed to do was fly a route that hadn’t previously been flown by a Hustler. The awards won by the Hustler included the Bleriot, MacKay, Harmon and Thompson Trophies. Among the record setters was Major Henry Deutschendorf, the father of the late singer John Denver. The award of the 1961 Thompson Trophy marked the first time a bomber crew had won the award. One flight in 1962 was known as the ‘Beat The Sun Flight’ when it became the first transcontinental flight to fly faster than the sun crossed the sky: The Hustler flew faster than the rotational speed of the earth.
Still Overtaken by Time
During 1969, the Hustlers began to leave active service, heading to storage at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. By the late 1970s no flying Hustlers survived — nearly all had gone from storage to smelter and remaining aircraft were either in storage or relegated to non-flight duties such as systems trainers.
Today, of the more than 100 B-58s produced, eight survive.
The Convair B-58 Hustler:
Length: 96 feet, 9 inches; Wingspan: 56 feet, 10 inches; Max Weight: 176, 890 pounds (in flight); Height: 31 feet, 5 inches; Powerplant (4): General Electric J79-GE-5 turbojet (with afterburner) of 15,600 lbs thrust; Max Speed (below 25,000 feet): .91 Mach; Max Speed (at 40,000 feet): Mach 2 (600 knots IAS); Cruise Speed: 531 knots; Combat Ceiling 64,800 feet; Ferry Range: 4,400 miles.