In 1952, aerospace company Convair had earned the go-ahead to design the B-58. It was to be the first supersonic bomber and would replace the B-47 according to SAB-51, the general operating requirement.
Convair’s revolutionary design had edged out Boeing’s concept, and the first flight happened on November 11, 1956. The company had full development responsibility and promptly went to work.
The B-58 was planned to be a radical departure from the B-47 in acquisition strategy, deployment philosophy, and design. The SAB-51 was the Air Force’s first requirement detailing radical technological advances. The design specs required the use of a Mach 2, medium-range nuclear bomber to keep a low RCS. The plane would also be capable of high altitudes.
Despite a successful test flight, significant challenges would combine to ensure that an exotic bomber designed for high-speed nuclear missions never made it to combat. An avalanche of blames continues to rain to this day as to why exactly the Hustler was a fiasco.
What Made the B-58 Bomber Tick?
The B-58 Hustler Bomber was destined to be first among equals, except it really was the first of its kind.
Though its B-47 predecessor was a jet-powered Stratojet, the Convair Hustler had delta wings. As a supersonic jet bomber, it was capable of faster flight – Mach 2.0 – than the B-52 Stratofortress and the Stratojet It also flew much higher than those bombers at its maximum altitude of 63,400 feet.
Convair went for maximum possible speed on the B-58. After all, the Air Force needed bombers to dash into the USSR (primarily) and China far faster and higher than interceptors and surface-to-air missiles could comfortably reach. The bombers should also be able to carry one nine-megaton B53 nuclear bomb or four B43 B61 nuclear bombs on four wing pylons.
CIA investigations had shown in 1964 that only China’s MiG-12 Fishbed aircraft could possibly intercept the B-58 Hustler bomber. However, the chances of them successfully doing so were considerably “marginal.”
The main reason why this was so was partly due to the Hustler’s J79-GE-5A turbojet engine quartet. Each engine could produce 10,400 pounds of dry thrust.
The delta-wing shape also contributed to the immense speed of the B-58. However, the B-58’s engineers had to redesign the fuselage into the curved shape of a coke bottle to take care of the resulting drag from such speeds. There was a large bomb-and-fuel pod underneath the fuselage.
Convair used a honeycombed fiberglass design to minimize heat on the Hustler’s skin. The fiberglass sat between aluminum and steel plates. Instead of riveting, the glue held the plates together. Later jet aircraft, including commercial airliners, would adopt this revolutionary design.
Convair quite easily delivered a bleeding-edge aircraft and military bomber for its era. Yet, all that didn’t seem to be enough.
What Was Wrong with the B-58 Bomber?
Despite a successful test flight and breathtaking features, the Air Force’s B-58 bomber faced significant problems.
Firstly, the Hustler was a small aircraft compared with the massive size of Soviet airspace. It only managed unrefueled combat airspace of 1,740 miles. The flying branch had to keep its Hustler fleet in Europe or assign multiple tankers for aerial refueling.
This short-range was worrying for the Air Force, according to retired USAF Colonel Elliot V. Converse III. He provides an informed account in his 2012 book, Rearming for the Cold War.
According to Converse’s account, Strategic Air Command’s Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay did not like the Hustler and preferred that the planes be kept away from SAC.
LeMay’s director of plans, Maj. Gen. John P. McConnell, highlighted the necessity for range if “the Soviet Union and not Canada” was the enemy.”
Besides the limited range, the B-58 was a mechanically complex contraption. By comparison, it was three times harder to operate than the B-52, and its development was plagued with numerous problems. There are significant delays in the program such as during the “coke bottle” redesign of the fuselage.
Even Bigger Issues
While there were many issues with the B-58 Hustler and its development, there were two factors that underscored the failure of the bomber.
The Soviets had managed to develop better surface-to-air missiles in the 1950s that eventually shot down Francis Gary Powers’ high-flying U-2 spy plane. The S-75 Dvina – dubbed the SA-2 Guideline by NATO – could an atmospheric height attain several thousand feet higher than the B-58’s maximum operating altitude.
Clearly, the Soviet Union’s interceptor arsenal could have made mincemeat of the B-58 Hustler bomber’s best performance.
One option would have been to fly low, but the heavier air would also slow down the flight. This effectively obliterated the reasoning behind Hustler’s design. Still, the plane handled poorly at lower speeds, and a significant 20 percent crashed.
The other telling issue was the US Air Force’s insistence that the B-58’development happen concurrently. This scenario would play out decades later with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The author of Rearming for the Cold War wrote that concurrent development involved designing a system as an integrated whole from the outset, such that work continues on all the elements of the system, including its subsystems and components of its employment. These components Include supporting facilities, equipment, and training programs.
Every problem created even more problems for the entire project – it was a best-case house of cards scenario. Each technological default required redesigning the entire system or delays until all problems were resolved. Situations like these were also rife in the F-35 development program.
The Air Force’s promise that concurrent development would lower costs for the f-35 stealth fighter, but this has not quite been the case.
The Final Nail in the Coffin: Money
The B-58 Hustler Bomber was revolutionary in every sense of the word, yet talking about it feels like discussing the archetypal military concept that never was. It would neither see combat nor redevelopment and was retired in 1970.
It’s only fair to say that money played a significant role in defining policy per the B-58 program. The number of aircraft produced was cut from 244 to 116 – less than half. Projects that drag with significant schedule issues, inevitably incur more financial overhead.
The Air Force’s nuclear attack mission would resort to low-flying B-1s, B52s, F-111s, stealthy B-2s, and ballistic missiles. Concurrency proved to be highly successful in the latter.
Despite its massive promise and potential, the B-58 did not see the battle. The US Air Force had enough testosterone to cut national loss and call time on the project. Unfortunately, time may have buried the danger in deploying concurrency in developing game-changing aircraft.