Aircraft, Awful and Awesome: B-58 Hustler

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing Historian

“Faster than a speeding bullet, more expensive per ounce than gold…” is an accurate, if expansive, description of the B-58 Hustler, one of the highest-performing aircraft ever to serve in the USAF’s inventory.

***image1***The B-58 was a product of the 1950s dream of a supersonic bomber whose speed would make it immune from fighter interception. The USAF selected Convair’s design, a four-engine, “high density” bomber with a delta wing bomber for high straight-line speed and plenty of volume for fuel tanks, though the wing would require high speeds (and therefore long distances) for takeoff and landing. A single high-yield nuclear weapon was carried in a 57-foot-long bullet-shaped belly pod so the fuselage could remain small and slender. The B-58 also required expensive, high-tech construction material over much of the airframe to absorb skin friction heat at Mach 2+. The landing gear was a special challenge – the struts had to be nine feet long to keep the pod off the ground, and to fit in the wing the tires only had a 22-inch diameter.

When the B-58 first flew in November 1956 its performance was nothing short of phenomenal. It could climb at Mach 2 at a time when few Air Force fighters could exceed Mach 1 in level flight, and the limit on its top speed – Mach 2.2 – was because of fuselage heating, not power. During its career the B-58 set numerous records, notably when one flew from Tokyo to London averaging over 1,300 miles an hour, and on another occasion reaching an altitude of over 85,000 feet with a payload of over 10,000 pounds.

But the B-58, a “hare” compared to SAC’s other bomber, the B-52 “tortoise,” was extremely expensive (a B-58 was worth more than its weight in gold) and had a high accident rate – almost 23 percent of all B-58s were lost in accidents, including two separate crashes at the Paris Air Show. This was despite what was considered an irresistible attention-getter at the time, a voice warning system with a soft feminine voice announcing such things as “hydraulic system failure” or “check for engine fire.”

The B-58 also had a much smaller weapons load and shorter range than the B-52, and could not meet the challenge of surface–to-air missiles by flying at low level – it had no terrain-following radar and was structurally unsuited for flying at low level. Today the “tortoise” B-52 is still flying operational missions, while the B-58 is a distant memory.