The Convair B-58 Hustler was the first operational supersonic jet bomber capable of flying above Mach 2. But during its first 10,000 hours of flight time, the B-58 bomber logged only 500 hours at speeds above Mach 1.0. The aircraft's first flight occurred on 11 November 1956 and the aircraft was retired from service in January 1970. It used a delta wing and had two General Electric J79 engines mounted in pods under each wing (total of four engines). It carried nuclear weapons and fuel in a large pod mounted under the fuselage.
Future aircraft, "will move with speeds far beyond the velocity of sound," said renowned Hungarian-born aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman in 1945. Highly regarded by Henry "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces (AAF), and by Maj. Gen. Curtis L.eMay, the first Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development, von Karman, as the AAFs chief scientific advisor, most likely influenced L.eMay's vigorous and diverse research and development program. Part of the program prompted the impressive 14 October 1947 test flight of the Bell X-1 rocket airplane, a flight which shattered both the sound barrier and the speculation that aerodynamic forces became infinite at Mach 1.
Development in the late 1940s of the single-place, air-launched X-1 was a major achievement. Nevertheless, as time would show, production of a 3-seater aircraft, capable of sustained speeds approaching the muzzle velocity of a 30-caliber bullet and of functioning effectively as a strategic bomber, would be a challenge of monumental proportions. The controversial B-58 program that ensued was to illustrate the dangers of untried technology versus the necessity of pioneering state-of-the-art developments. Where to draw the line between the two would remain open to question long after the costly B-58 ceased to exist.
A 1946 study by Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair), a contractor noted for interest in the delta-wing configuration, marked the beginning of the B-58. The project was so complex, however, that a new study was requested and a second contractor, Boeing, became involved. Proposed in 1951, the initial Convair design, as recommended by Dr. Alexander M. Lippisch, an eminent German scientist, foretold a deltaconfigured, 100,000-pound bomber; the Boeing design, a conventional, 200,000-pounder. Suggestive of the future B-58's tumultuous history, the 2 contractors followed totally different development approaches, and drastically opposed concepts emerged within the newly independent Air Force. USAF engineers kept asking for realistic military requirements, but the Air Staff decided that instead of accepting technology as the determining factor against which a mission could be fitted, mission objectives would come first and technology would be developed to satisfy them.
In late 1952, believing it promised the best means of achieving supersonic speeds with a weapon system of minimum size,, the Convair design, already altered several times, was selected over that of Boeing. The choice was not unexpected. In a recent study, the Rand Corporation had clearly stated that by minimizing size, one reduced the radar reflectivity of a vehicle and, therefore, the probabilities of interception by surface-to-air missiles. Also, the Air Force's latest development directive had reemphasized the importance of minimum size, of high-speed and high-altitude performances and, finally, of the weapon system development technique, an objective with which Convair was familiar.
General LeMay, who by the fall of 1952 had been heading the Strategic Air Command (SAC) for 4 years, and who would remain in that position until promoted to Vice Chief of Staff in mid-1957, did not like the Air Staff's selection. Among other arguments, he pointed out that instead of fostering economy and reliability, combining unconventional design and operational techniques made "it entirely possible that the system might prove operationally unsuitable." General LeMay's objections did not prevail, which was unusual. Rejection of the more conventional, longer-range, supersonic bomber, proposed by Boeing and preferred by General LeMay, also was ironic, since it was LeMay who, back in early 1948, ensured that a new strategic jet bomber would be developed on the heels of the B-52.
Throughout the years, money had a great deal to do with the B-58's retention. By 1954, for example, after an investment of some $200 million, the B-58 project could show no tangible achievements. Cancellation at this stage, the Air Staff reasoned, would mean an unacceptable financial loss. Hence, despite production slippages, soaring costs, and General LeMay's continued opposition, the B-58 survived. Yet, the program that finally emerged was emaciated, in terms of numbers as well as military capabilities.
The Air Force bought 116 B-58s, less than half of the minimum initially planned. At long last operational in 1961, the B-58 still harbored deficiencies of varying importance. Its bombing and navigation system was unreliable, and the aircraft was unable to carry several kinds of new weapons. Although expensive, necessary modifications were accomplished between 1962 and 1964. However, significant problems remained. In the early 1960s, technological advances had radically altered the anti-air defenses that the B-58 was expected to challenge. Defensive nuclear-tipped air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles appeared to preclude penetration of enemy airspace at high altitude. Since the B-58 structure incurred significant fatigue damage when flying at low level, and since the new bomber had no terrain-following radar, extensive modifications would be needed to permit effective low-level penetration. Such modifications did not materialize because of their prohibitive cost, and all B-58s were phased out of the Air Force inventory by early 1970, less than 8 years after the last ones rolled off the assembly line.
While the $3 billion price tag of the B-58 program did not help the manned bomber's cause, the aircraft did represent an important technological achievement. In its day the B-58 broke 12 world speed records and won almost every major aviation award in existence. The aircraft marked the first major departure from the monocoque riveted metal construction techniques of the 1930s and prompted the investigation of non-metallic composite structural methods. It brought about major technical advances, entailing technical uncertainties which remained until such an aircraft was flown. The Air Force took the risk, and the results may not have been cost-effective. Nonetheless, similar developmental risks again would have to be taken to assure progress in aerospace technology.
The B-58 had spindley landing gear, a hard delta wing, and little internal capacity due to extreme area rule design. They didn't have room to add systems for penetration of increasingly sophisticated Soviet defensive systems. At least 1 out of 5 built were lost due to accidents. It cost 3 times as much as a B-52 to maintain.
Phaseout of the entire B-58 force by the end of fiscal year 1971 (June 1970) was directed in December 1965. This schedule was a change from Secretary McNamara's earlier plans and gave the aircraft an extra year of operational life. However, once underway, the B-58 retirement program moved fast, actually ending 6 months ahead of time. It was completed on 16 January 1970, when the 305th Bomb Wing's last 2 B-58s (Serial Numbers 55-662 and 61-0278) were flown to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. The planes joined 82 other B-58As, including the 8 converted trainers, retired since 3 November 1969. Two B-58As, responsible for record-breaking flights in 1962 and 1963, escaped retirement at Davis-Monthan and were placed in museums.
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