The Convair B-58 Hustler was the first operational supersonic jet bomber capable of Mach 2 flight. The aircraft was designed by Convair engineer Robert H. Widmer and developed for the United States Air Force for service in the Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the 1960s. It used a delta wing, which was also employed by Convair fighters such as the F-102, with four General Electric J79 engines in pods under the wing. It carried a nuclear weapon and fuel in a large pod under the fuselage rather than in an internal bomb bay. Replacing the Boeing B-47 Stratojet medium bomber, it was originally intended to fly at high altitudes and supersonic speeds to avoid Soviet fighters. The B-58 received a great deal of notoriety due to its sonic boom, which was often heard by the public as it passed overhead in supersonic flight.
The introduction of highly accurate Soviet surface-to-air missiles forced the B-58 into a low-level penetration role that severely limited its range and strategic value, and it was never employed to deliver conventional bombs. This led to a brief operational career between 1960 and 1969, when the B-58 was succeeded by the smaller, swing-wing FB-111A.
The B-58 crews were elite, hand-picked from other strategic bomber squadrons. Due to some characteristics of delta-winged aircraft, new pilots used the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger as a conversion trainer, before moving to the TB-58A trainer. The B-58 was difficult to fly and its three-man crews were constantly busy, but its performance was exceptional. A lightly loaded Hustler would climb at nearly 46,000 ft/min (235 m/s).
It had a much smaller weapons load and more limited range than the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The B-58 had been extremely expensive to acquire. Through FY 1961, the total cost of the B-58 program was $3 billion. It was a complex aircraft that required considerable maintenance, much of which required specialized equipment and ground personnel. The B-58 cost three times as much to operate as the B-52. This included special maintenance issues with the nose landing gear that retracted in a complicated fashion to avoid the center payload. It had an unfavorably high accident rate: 26 B-58 aircraft were lost in accidents, 22.4% of total production. It was very difficult to safely recover from the loss of an engine at supersonic cruise due to differential thrust. SAC had been dubious about the type from the beginning, although its crews eventually became enthusiastic about the aircraft; its performance and design were appreciated, although it was never easy to fly.
Two SAC bomb wings operated the B-58 during its operational service: the 43d Bombardment Wing, based at Carswell AFB, Texas from 1960 to 1964, and Little Rock AFB, Arkansas from 1964 to 1970; and the 305th Bombardment Wing, based at Bunker Hill AFB (later Grissom AFB), Indiana from 1961 to 1970. The 305th also operated the B-58 combat crew training school (CCTS), the predecessor of USAF's current formal training units (FTUs).
By the time the early problems had largely been resolved and SAC interest in the bomber had solidified, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided that the B-58 was not going to be a viable weapon system. It was during the B-58's introduction that the surface-to-air missile (SAM) became a viable threat, especially the SA-2 Guideline, a SAM system the Soviet Union extensively deployed. The "solution" to this problem was to fly at low altitudes, minimizing the radar line-of-sight and minimizing exposure time.
Because of the denser air at low altitudes, the B-58 could not fly at supersonic speeds and its moderate range was reduced further, thereby negating the high performance the design paid so dearly for. In late 1965, Secretary McNamara ordered the B-58's retirement by 1970. Despite efforts of the Air Force to earn a reprieve, the phaseout proceeded on schedule. The last B-58s were retired in January 1970 and placed in storage in AMARC at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The fleet survived until 1977, when nearly all remaining aircraft were sold to Southwestern Alloys for disposal. The B-58 as a weapons system was replaced by the FB-111A, designed for low-altitude attack, and less expensive to produce.
The Supply Squadron for the Division was manned by people who were the best in getting materials to keep the aircraft within flight status. The parts were so specialized that it could not be used in any other type of aircraft. The same part might be used on several aircraft when they were to sit on the ground for evaluation; the needed parts were removed to the aircraft that was to fly and was replaced after the flying aircraft ended its flying time and returned to the initial aircraft as it getting set to reenter to the flight status.
A total of 116 B-58s were produced: 30 trial aircraft and 86 production B-58A models. Most of the trial aircraft were later upgraded to operational standard. Eight were equipped as TB-58A training aircraft.
A number of B-58s were used for special trials, including testing the radar system intended for the Lockheed YF-12 interceptor. Several improved (and usually enlarged) variants, dubbed B-58B and B-58C by the manufacturer, were proposed but never built.
Singer John Denver's father, Colonel Henry J. Deutschendorf, Sr., USAF, held several speed records as a B-58 pilot.
Statistics on this Aircraft:
Name: B-58 Hustler
Country of origin: United States
Role Strategic bomber
First flight: 11 November 1956
Introduction: 15 March 1960
Retired: 31 January 1970
Primary user: United States Air Force
Number built: 116
Unit cost: US$12.44 million
XB-58: Prototype. Two built.
YB-58A: Pre-production aircraft, 11 built.
B-58A: Three-seat medium-range strategic bomber aircraft, 86 built.
TB-58A: Training aircraft, eight conversions from YB-58A.
NB-58A: This designation was given to a YB-58A, which was used for testing the J93 engine. The engine was originally intended for the North American XB-70 Valkyrie Mach 3 bomber.
RB-58A: Variant with ventral reconnaissance pod, 17 built.
B-58B: Unbuilt version. SAC planned to order 185 of these improved bombers; canceled due to budgetary considerations.
B-58C: Unbuilt version. Enlarged version with more fuel and 32,500 lbf (145 kN) J58, the same engine used on the Lockheed SR-71. Design studies were conducted with two and four engine designs, the C model had an estimated top speed approaching Mach 3, a supersonic cruise capability of approximately Mach 2, and a service ceiling of about 70,000 ft (21,300 m) along with the capability of carrying conventional bombs. Convair estimated maximum range at 5,200 nautical miles (6,000 mi; 9,600 km). The B-58C was proposed as a lower cost alternative to the North American XB-70. As enemy defenses against high-speed, high-altitude penetration bombers improved, the value of the B-58C diminished and the program was canceled in early 1961.