Nuclear Friday: Mach 2 Turkeys

The B-58 Hustler was the fastest turkey ever built. There have been crazier and costlier aircraft, but the Hustler wins the title for top turkey of the Cold War because it actually made it to operational service between 1960 and 1970. During those ten years, 22% of the aircraft were lost to accidents and systems failures. It was as deadly as it was beautiful. And it was quite a classy looking plane:


There were numerous difficulties with designing and building an intercontinental supersonic bomber using 1950’s technology, and I’ll get to those later on. But the biggest issue with the B-58 was that it was obsolete the day the first one was delivered. In 1960 a  U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down by an SA-2 missile while on a mission over the Soviet Union. It should have been clear at that point that a high altitude supersonic attack over the Soviet Union would not be possible. Some, including SAC Director Curtis LeMay, had long argued that the B-58 was too expensive and unreliable. LeMay had also revised attack plans to cope with expected advances in Soviet air defenses even before the U-2 incident.

Low and slow, underneath the radar just like in Dr. Strangelove, was SAC’s new battle plan. The B-52 was able to adapt to this new role, but everything about the B-58 says high and fast. Convair performed a series of test flights that attempted to show that the B-58 could adapt to new USAF policy. Apparently the movie convinced Congress because the B-58A, the “operational” combat version of the aircraft, was delivered in late 1960.

I like this movie because if you watch closely you can see why the B-58 had the problems it did. Did you notice the cockpit? It’s just a little bigger than a fighter cockpit. All you see is one pilot and one set of controls. Perhaps there’s a copilot and backup controls somewhere else, perhaps in a tandem arrangement? Nope! No backup. The B-58 was almost just a really big fighter. There were two other crew members other than the pilot in a tandem arrangement, but neither could do anything to help fly the plane even if there were backup controls because they have no windows of any kind. The navigator sat in a compartment behind the pilot with the inertial navigation computer between them. The navigator used scopes connected to a display screen to make course adjustments by celestial navigation. The third crew member was the Defensive Systems Operator in charge of electronic countermeasures and an automated radar controlled 20mm cannon in the rear of the plane. The DSO also monitored communications.

Now you’re probably thinking that a plane this complicated really should have a flight engineer. You’d be right, it should have. And it sort of did. The B-58 had “Sexy Sally” an automated system that used recordings of actress Joan Elms. But Sally wasn’t a smart enough computer to actually perform engineering tasks, she could only tell you when things were going wrong. I’ve been trying to find out exactly how Sally worked. I think it was with magnetic tapes mounted on a drum or something like the Mellotron. I plan to do a Nuclear Friday post on Sexy Sally and her successors, the “Bitching Bettys”, as soon as I get all the information about the mechanics behind Sally.

There were other extensive mechanical problems with the Hustler. The navigation computer tended to catch fire and emit smoke. The landing gear retracted into pressurized and air conditioned compartments. Loss of cooling or pressure could make the tires explode. But there was an even bigger problem. The video above tries to argue that pilot visibility is good at low altitude. It was not. At low altitudes and speeds, the plane had to be pitched upward at about nine or ten degrees. When landing, it had to pitch up at close to 15 degrees. This is typical of aircraft with large delta wings optimized  for high altitude performance. Planes like this also have to have long noses. This makes landing difficult as the long nose keeps the pilot from being able to see the runway. The Concorde solved the problem with a “droop snoot”:


The nose of the Concorde can be tilted down to allow the pilot to land more safely. The B-58 had no such feature and pilots had a hard time feeing their way through a landing. Hard landings that broke the nose gear were quite common and contributed to the 22% operational loss rate.

The Air Force knew they might have a widowmaker on their hands and had requested improvements to the ejection system. Even if actual bombing missions would be low altitude and fairly low speed, the B-58 still needed to get to and from the target area at high altitudes and supersonic speeds. The human body is not very well equipped to handle supersonic ejection. All but the first few B-58A models had an ejection pod system. In case of an ejection emergency, the crew members would pull a protective shell around themselves, and pull the ejection lever. The pod could retain air pressure during a long freefall descent to an altitude where the chute could safely open:


Here’s a test firing of the pod in one of Convair’s aircraft:


You can watch a 20 minute video on the design and testing of the ejection system at this link. I don’t think the ejection system helped much. The B-58 was so bad there’s memorial page for those who died flying it.

You’d think that killing crews, costing too much to operate, and not being able to perform its original mission as a high altitude bomber would would guarantee that the B-58 was the worst turkey of the Cold War. But here’s the clencher: I can find no evidence that a B-58 ever took off carrying an operational nuclear weapon. I understand why it never happened. Would you put a bomb on that thing? The most I can find they ever did was get loaded and ready during special alerts such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The B-58 began to be withdrawn from service in 1968 with the last aircraft withdrawn in 1970. Good riddance! Most sources will say that the B-58 was replaced by the F-111B, a failed “missile bus” fighter repurposed into a light bomber. This is completely incorrect, the F-111 was not primarily an intercontinental attack craft and while it saw limited service in the same role as the B-58, it was primarily an infiltration aircraft stationed in Europe and the Pacific. The real story of the B-58’s replacement can be deduced from an analysis of the bombs it it carried. It had an inadequate bomb load for such an expensive to operate plane. It could carry one thermonuclear device in the belly pod. The pod was necessary because none of the larger bombs were capable of surviving external supersonic carry or supersonic release. By the mid 60’s modifications had been made to carry up to four B43 or B61 series bombs under the wings. The B43 needed a small protective pod for supersonic carry and release, but the B61 sturdy enough to survive most of what a Hustler to do to it. These were also very small and light weapons, and that’s what really made the B-58 unnecessary. The Hustler was replaced in part by powerful bombs that had gotten so small that light tactical air delivery can hit as hard as all but the biggest bombers. And if you need longer range than what my beloved tactical loft delivery can provide, there’s always cruise missiles. Planes don’t replace planes, capabilities replace capabilities.





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