Life and death in the ‘Delta Queen’: My time on the B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber

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Fast, accurate and survivable, the Convair B-58 Hustler was a sexy Cold War totem. Its glamour belied the grimness of its intended role as a strategic nuclear bomber, a task it thankfully never performed. As we find out from Colonel George Holt Jr – a Navigator/Bombardier on this Mach 2 monster –  the Hustler was a brilliantly engineered and utterly potent aircraft retired in its prime. Holt was part of the B-58equipped 305th Bomb Wing at Bunker Hill AFB (now Grissom AFB) close to Peru, Indiana from 1960 to 1969.

What was the best thing about the Hustler?

It had a very high probability for penetrating enemy defenses and accurately delivering its weapons on assigned targets.

..and the worst? 

My brother, Tech Sergeant John Holt was assigned to B-58 maintenance from 1963 to 1968.  He noted that the B-58 experienced excessive downtime after a mission, as discrepancies had to be cleared before the next flight.  Before any maintenance could begin on the aircraft, a ground air conditioning unit had to be hooked up and cooling air had to be supplied to the aircraft before he could turn the power switch on. Unlike most bombers, the Hustler was a very tight aircraft and panels had to be removed before most maintenance could begin.

Then there were the ‘Hangar Queens’ those few aircraft that had numerous repeatable maintenance problems that no one could figure out.  Quite often, those problems were associated with the Bomb/Nav system.  Lt. Colonel Tom Hatch remembers one flight where the Bomb/Nav system started to overheat and the air conditioning was switched to ‘reverse flow’— a condition that forced cooling air into the electronic equipment before entering the crew station area.  On one mission, the heat was so unbearable that he had to strip down to his bare chest.  However, incidents like this were the exception rather than the norm and in May 1968 the entire fleet of B-58s started receiving an improved version of the AN/ASQ-42 Bomb/Nav system, along with new technical data and spare parts. In my three years of flying in the B-58, I never experienced a ‘reverse flow’ condition. 

Some maintenance personnel said they “hated working on this airplane” but in almost the same breath, they would say, “they wouldn’t trade it for the world.”  Like the aircrews, the B-58 maintenance folks were an elite group and proud to have worked on the Hustler.  They were the best, and the best way to measure their performance is to note that B-58s, on a daily basis, were able to meet their SIOP (war plan) commitment of having 32 alert-ready aircraft, refuelled with weapons loaded and ready to go to war at a moment’s notice.

What was its Cold War tasking? 

It was in the bomber component of the United States nuclear triad consisting of land-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear-missile-armed submarines, and strategic aircraft with nuclear bombs and missiles. Each B-58 alert crew stood ready to launch within minutes of a confirmed attack on the U.S. to deliver five weapons on assigned military targets in enemy territory.

What were you first impressions of the B-58?

In the Spring of 1966, my Wing Commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Pease AFB, New Hampshire asked if I’d like to be reassigned to B-58s. For six years I’d flown as a navigator/bombardier in the B-47, but all B-47s were being retired so it was an honour to have been selected, because the Convair B-58 Hustler was the most sophisticated and technologically advanced aircraft of its day and back then you could not just volunteer for B-58s you had to be selected and recommended by your wing commander.

I was fortunate to be paired up with Major Al Dugard, an outstanding pilot who had been with the 509th for many years. Al successfully passed his F-102 transition training while I was at Mather AFB, CA for B-58 Nav training. Al and our Defensive Systems Operator (DSO), Major Bob McCormack then went to Bunker Hill AFB, Indiana, for flight training in the TB-58.

When I arrived at Bunker Hill (later renamed Grissom AFB) I was quite amazed at my first sight of a B-58. This baby looked fantastic. It was much bigger than I had imagined and you could tell it was built for speed with those four brute-force J-79 engines strung beneath its delta wing. With a sharply tapered needle-nose, it looked ready to break the sound barrier while still on the ground. This racehorse was itching to get out of the stable and run with the wind. I found it hard to believe that I’d be riding this beast in that second cockpit.

Al and Bob had already logged a number of hours in the plane with an instructor pilot, but my first flight meant going up with Al on his first solo ride. It would be a normal mission – high altitude navigation, inflight refuelling with a KC-135 tanker and high and low altitude nav runs with simulated bomb drops being scored by radar bomb scoring sites.

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I had some hesitation as we headed out to the aircraft. Something didn’t feel right. I had my helmet and oxygen mask and my Nav kit – but something was missing. My shoulders felt light. Then I realised I didn’t have a parachute. After ten years of flying in tactical and strategic bombers wearing a fairly heavy parachute for hours on end, I suddenly realised those days were over – no parachute required in the Hustler. The escape capsule had its own installed parachute, so this would be shirt-sleeve flying.

The B-58 was also the only bomber aircraft I know of that had a single pilot with two navigators on board – the DSO was a rated navigator. The crew sat in tandem, one behind the other in three isolated cockpits – no standing room available.

I’ll always remember the take-off and climb-out of my first mission. We were sitting on the runway with four engines in full afterburner. Then at brake release I felt pushed back in my seat as we made a rapid roll to lift off and then a climb at 425 knots until we reached altitude. Of course, after takeoff we had to throttle back out of afterburner to prevent this racehorse from running wild.

Its four J79 engines produced 62,400 pounds of thrust, so the B-58 with an empty weight of only 55,650 pounds had an outstanding thrust-to-weight ratio. 

People often asked, “Did you become claustrophobic sitting in such a confined space for hours on end?”  My reply was always, ”No. I was just too darned busy during the mission to have any time to think about being claustrophobic.”

Describe the B-58 in three words?

Fast, Accurate and Survivable. Let me explain:

Fast: The B-58 was fast and had a range of airspeeds. At its maximum speed of Mach 2.2 (1,452 mph) it was 2½ times faster than the muzzle velocity of a .45 caliber bullet. Although it was a strategic bomber it could outmaneuver, outturn, and out-climb most fighter aircraft of its day. But it was also fast while flying at low level. On the deck we would skirt the treetops just below the speed of sound. This amazing bomber captured numerous international speed records winning five aeronautical trophies: The Thompson, Bleriot, Mackay, Bendix and Harmon trophies.  The B-58 Hustler also set 14 world speed records in international competition; and in 1962, a Hustler carried a payload of 11,000 lbs. to an altitude of 85,360 feet.

Accurate: It was unbeatable in navigational and bombing accuracy. Its Doppler, Stellar, and Inertial navigation system was quite unique for its day. Before it was fully combat-ready, a B-58 crew, competing against more experienced B-47 and B-52 crews, did the unthinkable.  It took first place for bombing accuracy at the 1960, Strategic Air Command, Bombing Competition. I would often fly “radar silent” going from standby to radar-on just for the few seconds required to position my crosshairs on navigation checkpoints, however the Bomb/Nav system of the Hustler was so accurate that quite often the crosshairs would be laying directly on the checkpoint when radar was turned on.

Survivable: In the 1960s, improvements in Soviet surface to air missiles (SAMs) forced the B-58 from a high-altitude supersonic penetration of enemy airspace to a low-level penetration and a high subsonic speed run to its targets, just below Mach-1. The Hustler adapted to this new profile exceptionally well. The B-52 was also forced to go in at low-level but it had a huge radar image and its lower speed held no comparison to the B-58 whose radar image was virtually undetectable. Flying low and fast it was hard for radar sites to pick us up amongst the radar ground clutter and its ability to fly ‘silent’ with no electromagnetic emissions made it virtually undetectable in enemy territory. I can attest to how the B-58 was like a stealth bomber on low-level bomb runs. Quite often when we approached a Nike bomb scoring site, we were asked to pop up so they could obtain a radar lock-on.

What is a particularly dangerous aircraft?

I would describe a dangerous aircraft as one where you risked life or limb at a much higher probability compared to other aircraft. I flew for six years in the B-47 six-engine jet bomber and never felt comfortable on take-off and landings because I knew if I had to eject at that low altitude, in my navigator’s downward ejection seat, my chance of survival was close to zero.

Tell us about the escape pod.

It was quite a relief to find out that the Hustler, not only had upward ejection seats for all three crew members, but we would also have our own escape capsule.  This capsule was amazing. The pilot’s capsule is shown in the closed position. His capsule included the flight control stick allowing him to control the aircraft while encapsulated up to the point of ejection.  The B-58 was the first Air Force aircraft to have a capsule ejection system to allow safe ejection at supersonic speed. And it worked at any airspeed from 100 knots to above Mach 2 and from ground level to 70,000 feet.  This capsule would get you out of the aircraft safely.  It had an independent pressurisation and oxygen supply system, shock absorbers to ease the impact on touchdown, and it even floated on water. 

Do you think it was more survivable than the B-52?

It was much more survivable than the B-52 for a number of reasons. If we had to go to war, it could take off much faster than the B-52. At low level, it could penetrate enemy defenses at a much higher speed and coped much better in heavy turbulence. Most of all it was much harder to detect on enemy radars.

The Studies and Analysis Directorate at the Pentagon ran computer simulations comparing the B-58 with the B-52.  They concluded that the B-58’s speed advantage and its very low radar signature gave the Hustler a higher probability of evading detection by enemy radars.  This held true even when the B-58 was programmed to fly at a higher altitude than the B-52 during low-level penetration to the target.  In comparing radar signature differences, I remember one of the evaluators saying, “The difference between the B-58 and the B-52 was like comparing a postage stamp to a barn door.”

Here’s how my former B-58 pilot compared the two aircraft when I asked him which was more survivable.  “I have over 3500 hours in the B-47, close to 1,000 hours in the B-52, with 350 in combat missions in Vietnam, including flights over Hanoi and Haiphong. As a weapons machine for use in both peacetime deterrence and war conditions, the B-58 was exceptional.” 

He went on to say, “Having flown the B-52 into a highly defended enemy target complex, it is apparent to me that the B-52 was highly vulnerable to enemy defenses. Having survived the onslaught of surface to air missiles (SAMs) due only to electronic countermeasures and seeing missiles fired even before our initial turn to target, I am convinced that the B-52 for all its great capability was a large detectable target, easily identified and vulnerable to the SAM complexes. The B-52 at low-level had this same huge radar image and due to its lower speed held no comparison to the B-58 whose low-level speed was much greater and the B-58’s radar image was virtually undetectable.”

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Why was it retired, and was it too early? 

By 1967, all major improvement modifications had been completed on the B-58 and like its big brother the B-52, it could have remained in the inventory for many more years.  Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even the Office of the Secretary of Defense, despite initial misgivings about the Hustler, came to realize its value as a strategic bomber and by January 1969, it had been given a new lease on life.  It was certainly a weapon system feared by the Soviets. But because of an indisputable blunder by Strategic Air Command, during a time when they were under pressure to cut costs, they decided to trade off all of the B-58s in hopes of retaining some older model B-52s.  They got their trade off from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Then, within months, they were also forced to phase out those older model B-52s they had hoped to keep.

What was special about the B-58?

It was an airplane you could fall in love with. It was a pleasure to fly. Among all the pilots I’ve known in my three years of flying in the B-58, none thought the B-58 was hard to fly. In fact, they thought it was the smoothest airplane they ever flew. Especially those who had flown fixed-wing B-47s and B-52s. Its delta wing gave the Hustler a smoother and more stable ride than other aircraft. Responsiveness to controls was instantaneous and you didn’t wait for a wing to respond to control movement.  Formation flight i.e., Air Refueling was much easier due to the stable platform.”

Your most memorable mission?

I actually had two very memorable missions. I had mentioned earlier that the B-58 had a range of airspeeds. The following illustrates how slow and how fast  the Hustler could fly.

There’s no doubt that the B-58 had an amazing high-speed capability. Now, let’s take a look at the Hustler’s slow speed ‘floating leaf’ capability.

I had my share of ‘shacks’ i.e., putting a bomb directly on target with zero error, and never had a bad bomb score in my three years of navigating and bombing in the B-58. But came close when I was running high altitude simulated bomb drops on a Nike site one evening over Chicago.  We were in a racetrack pattern and getting excellent scores from the Nike radar bomb scoring unit. However, we were flying in one humongous jet stream, well over 200 mph.  Our inbound run to the target was very slow and our outbound on the racetrack was like a ‘Bat out of Hell’ with that ferocious tailwind kicking us in the rear.

Nike sites scored bomb runs by acquiring the inbound aircraft on radar.  The aircraft’s track was drawn in ink on a large horizontal whiteboard. The track was based on the aircraft’s ground speed and true course.  Ten seconds before bomb release, I would transmit a constant tone.  At simulated bomb release the tone stops and the pen on the plotting board lifts up.  At that point, the Nike site operators would extend the track based on the time of fall for the bomb type and the best-known wind data.  Altogether, this determined how close the bomb came to the target.

Well, on this particular evening, I was getting somewhat bored on my fourth inbound to the target.  We were fighting that tremendous headwind and it seemed like it was taking forever to get to the target. So I decided to try something different. I computed an indicated airspeed (IAS) for Al Dugard, my pilot, to fly that would make our true airspeed equivalent to the speed of the jet stream.  If Al could hit that speed, then our groundspeed would be zero.  We had just flown a seven-hour mission and the Hustler was real light with just enough fuel, plus some reserve, to get us back to Bunker Hill, 15 minutes away.  Al was not sure, he could hold such a low airspeed for too long, but he was willing to try.

He started throttling back on the engines, careful to keep the Hustler above the stall speed and I kept my eye on the groundspeed indicator.  Son of a gun, we were approaching zero groundspeed.

Al said, “George, I can keep this airspeed and angle of attack, but I’m beginning to lose some altitude to maintain it.”

“OK, Al, we just hit zero groundspeed.  Hold it a bit longer and then we can accelerate to keep the bomb run going.”

Then we started getting panic calls from the Nike site because the pen plotting our track, inbound to the target, had stopped its forward motion.  That meant only one thing to the Nike bomb plot people on the ground—we must have either blown up in the air or crashed to the ground.

“Delta 23 this is Nike bomb plot.  Do you have an emergency?  Come in Delta 23.”

Al came over the interphone, “George, I’ll respond to Nike so they don’t get too panicky and declare an emergency on us.”

“Nike bomb plot.  This is Delta 23.  Sorry for the delay.  We just stopped for a while to open and eat our flight lunches.  We’re now continuing into the target.”

“Roger 23” – a long silence and then, “Your pen plot has started to move again.”

They probably could not believe what just happened and never asked for an explanation.  I was just lucky they did not retaliate by giving me a bad bomb score. 

Now let’s take a look at how fast this beautiful lady could fly. Here’s a mission I was on in March 1967, out of Fort Worth, Texas:

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“Foxtrot one five, this is Carswell Tower, you’re cleared for takeoff.  Center has cleared an unrestricted climb to 24,000 feet.”

“Roger, tower.”

“OK, Crew, we’re ready to roll.  Advancing power to 100%, engines stabilized, kicking in AB, and releasing brakes.”

I felt the afterburners kick in and said, “Al, I’ve started my stop watch, let me know when you level off at 24,000 feet.”

“Roger that.  S1, passing the 1,000-foot marker.  S2, rotation, lift off, climbing.”

“Al, my altimeter is spinning like crazy back here.”

“Mine, too.  We’re approaching 15,000 feet and I can see the end of the runway below us.”

“Ft Worth Center, this is Foxtrot one five, passing through 15,000 feet.”

Center didn’t believe us. “Foxtrot 15, say again altitude?” 

“Flight Level 19 Zero, and now leveling off at 24 Zero.”

“Al, you won’t believe this but my stopwatch reads 48 seconds and that was from brake release.”

“I believe it, George.  It’s the lightest fuel load we’ve ever had.  That climb was like sitting on the head of a rocket.  I couldn’t level off quick enough and finally hit the top of the parabola at 26 thousand feet and dove back down to the assigned altitude of 24.  That was a blast.  What’s our heading to The General Dynamics rehab base at James Connolly?”

“Pick up a heading of one seven four degrees.”

I was the Navigator/Bombardier in that one-minute conversation with our pilot, Major Al Dugard, as we departed Carswell Air Force Base, enroute to James Connolly Air Force Base.  Our Defensive Systems Operator, Major ‘Mac’ MacDonald was also on board. 

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Our mission was to ferry a B-58 “Hustler” to James Connolly for a modification on the wing root and other mods to extend the life of the B-58 well into the 1970s.  While at James Connolly, we picked up an aircraft that had already been modified and flew it back home to Bunker Hill Air Force Base, Indiana.

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Was Mach 2 possible, did you reach it? 

Mach 2 was more than possible. The thrust of the four J79 engines could push the B-58 well beyond Mach 2. The limiting factor was aircraft skin temperature. When a B-58 crew set a transcontinental speed record in 1962 they monitored the skin temperature gauges to ensure they did not exceed 125 degrees centigrade (125°C = 257°F.) 

I’ve often been asked, “What was it like when the B-58 went supersonic?”  Unlike the loud boom, someone on the ground would hear, my first experience passing through the sound barrier was remarkably quiet.  Unless you were looking at your instruments, you would never know you had gone supersonic. There was not even a small shudder within the aircraft—nothing, except a fluctuation on the altimeter. The reading would drop around 500 feet and then bounce back to the proper altitude. The B-58 was capable of delivering bombs at Mach 2 but it could be tricky. Travelling at 23 miles per minute. You had to acquire the target as early as possible and once your crosshairs were locked on target any further movement of the crosshairs could result in very steep bank angles as the aircraft turned to reacquire the target.

How fast and smooth was the ride at low levels?

The B-58 was very fast and very smooth and quite stable even when flying in low level turbulence. When other larger bombers on a low level route aborted their mission due to heavy turbulence, we would come in behind them and successfully complete the mission experiencing only light to moderate turbulence. That’s the advantage of a delta wing design. The B-58’s wingspan was short, solid and stable, unlike aircraft with large wingspans where turbulence can induce oscillating forces on the wings. It was much faster than the B-52 at low level.

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How good were the weapons and sensors?

All bombs were dropped with a drogue retarded parachute to allow safe escape from the bomb blast. The Defensive Systems Operator (DSO) controlled a powerful electronic counter-measures (ECM) system to blind enemy radars, including an active jammer and a chaff dispenser. The defensive armament of the B-58 had a six-barrel, 20-mm rotary cannon (Gatling gun) with a maximum firing rate of 4000 rounds per minute.  The radar for the tail gun was located in a bullet fairing above the tail cone.  The gun was aimed remotely by the fire control system in the tail, but there was a radar (automatic) fire control panel and a manual fire control panel located at the DSO’s station.  The firing zone was any target within a 60-degree cone. The defensive ECM system gave early warning of enemy radar systems to deceive, confuse, or jam them.  The system also had radar track-breaking equipment, that generated deceptive radar jamming signals. When radar tracking signals, locked on us, the track breaker generated and transmitted deceptive angle and range information back to the hostile radar tracking system.  A chaff dispensing system was also installed in each upper main gear fairing, with chaff being ejected through mechanically actuated slots in the tops of each wing fairing.

What should I have asked you? How about: Have you published any books about the B-58?

I have published a couple of books about the B-58. My best seller is “The B-58 Blunder – How the U.S. Abandoned its Best Strategic Bomber.” It details much more of what has been presented here and is available on Amazon where it has sold over 6,000 copies and received over 260 reviews. In it I describe how the B-58 came to a premature death, largely because of infighting among military and civilian leaders, who failed to understand the value and full capabilities of this fantastic airplane.  It was a technological marvel, years ahead of its time and it should never have been sent to the boneyard.

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