Locklin on science

The B-58 Hustler

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on June 2, 2012

Aerospace technology became grotesque and beautiful in the 1950s. One of the most grotesque and beautiful creations of that bizarre era of technological excellence was the Convair B-58 Hustler.

As I have said before, the early supersonic era is one of my favorite epochs of aerospace technology. Not because the products of this era were particularly effective: most of them were spectacular failures. I love this era of technology because it is beautiful. The creations of this time stretched technologies to the absolute limits. It is the embodiment of a tremendous strain of the human technological spirit, grasping after the unattainable ideal. It is the technological manifestation of the look on the face of the Olympic weight lifter, as his joints crack and sinews pop, straining  every muscle fiber to  accomplish the impossible goal.

What was the B-58? Convair more or less took its F-102 airframe, multiplied its linear dimensions by 1.5 or so, strapped four enormous engines to the wings, stuck a machine gun on its tail, and called it a Supersonic Bomber. The engines were so fuel hungry, the only practical way to get the thing to Russia was to integrate the bomb with the external fuel tank, but it worked. It was bristling with new technologies. In addition to its ability to travel at ludicrous speeds, the B-58 would actually talk to its pilots in a lady-like voice which they called sexy-Sally (or “the bitch” since it always delivered bad news). Yeah, your dumb iphone will also do this, but imagine what some corn-pone who used to pilot a big aluminum dump truck like the B-17 made of this! It must have been considered something like magic.

Other innovative technologies: the airframe used a sophisticated aluminum honeycomb and fiberglass composite material. The ejection seats were wacky clamshell devices to make it possible for all 3 occupants of the aircraft to eject safely. It had several sophisticated radars and avionics that included an accurate inertial guidance system that used a sort of electric star sextant, doppler radar, and electric compass to reset the drift (probably utilizing some analog electro-mechanical Kalman filter like ideas, which is pretty neat if you’re a signal processing nerd).

The combat doctrine of the era was that nuclear weapon equipped bombers would fly very high, and go very fast, to avoid enemy interceptors. This, effectively, was the combat doctrine of WW-2, applied to the supersonic era. This actually made sense for a brief period: it was very difficult to shoot down a B-29 in late WW-2 which flew too high for most interceptors. In order for interceptors to shoot down the B-29, they would have to gain altitude very quickly, and be able to beat the speed of the B-29, which was considerable. Remember, the B-58 was flying only 12 years after the introduction of the B-29. It was conceived a mere 5 years after the deployment of the B-29. What happened 5 years ago, technologically speaking, in modern aerospace technology? 5 years ago is pretty much last week. I think 5 years ago, we were saying the F-35 would fly in 5 years. Which is pretty much what we’re saying today. But the 40s and 50s were a different era. People were more serious, and technological advance was happening so quickly, combat doctrine couldn’t keep up.

What was the effect of the B-58? Well, for one thing, it freaked out the Soviets. The built a whole new generation of ridiculously fast supersonic interceptors to deal with it. They also built their own supersonic bombers, like the Tu-22 “Blinder” pictured below. They built a giant radar network, so they could at least see the things coming in time to send something up to get the B-58. They also invested heavily in surface to air missile technology, which eventually made the B-58 irrelevant.

The B-58 was rendered irrelevant by surface to air missiles almost as soon as it was deployed, but it earned a reprieve by virtue of being reasonably good at flying low, under the SAM radar. Even so, it was preposterously expensive to purchase and operate. It was estimated to cost its weight in gold. The subsonic B-52, conceived years before, was almost as good at flying under the radar as the Hustler was, and it cost a lot less, carried more boom and had a much larger combat radius. Truth be told, the altitude and cruising speed of a B-52 wasn’t all that different from that of a B-58 either; the Hustler could only maintain supersonic flight while burning tremendous amounts of fuel. While the supersonic dash capability of the B-58 might have made it a more survivable platform in the event of a nuclear war … since a nuclear war with the Soviets would have been the end of civilization, it really doesn’t matter much if the B-58 survives, does it? What’s it going to do when it gets back? In an uncharacteristic display of intelligence, Robert McNamera decided to phase out the Hustler in 1965, a mere 5 years after it was first deployed, and was completely retired by 1970. I don’t think he did it for the right reasons, as McNamera was one of the most cement-headed SecDefs we have ever had, but at least he did it.

What can be learned from the experience of the B-58? I think it is clear by now: we don’t need supersonic bombers.   We don’t need supersonic anything to drop bombs. Supersonic flight doesn’t help much in this role, and the compromises the capability inflicts are not worth the trouble or the money.  The other supersonic-capable bomber we deployed, the B-1B, was never particularly useful either, other than as a nuclear codpiece for freaking out Russian people. The only way a very fast, high flying bomber could conceivably be useful is if it goes very high, and very fast, at which point it’s basically an insanely expensive, pointlessly reusable ICBM anyway.

The other thing we can learn from this: yesterday’s combat doctrine isn’t very helpful. We’re presently engaged in developing a next generation stealth bomber, as if the last generation were not expensive enough. While I admit the utility of a stealth bomber for strategic targets, or the early parts of a war on a third world country, I’m not sure why we need more than we already have. Finally, absurdly expensive weapons systems are almost never worth the money. While we’ve gone through several generations of “advanced” bombers since the Hustler, when we need to drop lots of bombs, the venerable B-52, a 1948 design, is still the tool of choice.

Still, I’m glad the B-58 was built. It’s a crazy machine, from a crazy time.




15 Responses

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  1. RufusT said, on June 3, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    I served on a carrier in the Navy….A pilot who had flown off carriers in the 60s told me that during the Cuban missile crisis, three Hustlers took off from Turkey and buzzed the Kremlin around 1Am….JFK called Nikita K & told him to look outside his window just as the three Hustlers roared over Red Square on full afterburner… Your fifth picture down was Nikita’s view in 62……..The Soviets quickly made a deal. To allow them to save face, we pulled some old obsolete & dangerous missiles out of Turkey, missiles which had already scheduled to be removed in 6mos…….Do a little research & you’ll find that the fastest Soviet interceptor operational at the time had almost exactly the same top speed as the Hustler…The Soviets had neither “look down, shoot down” or backscatter radar at that time…….Several years after I heard the story, another former servicemen from the 70s said had heard the same story although with two Hustlers instead
    of three…..

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 3, 2012 at 10:47 pm

      I’d like to believe that one is true (erm, sorta; Kennedy would have been nuts to do that as a form of brinkmanship), but I’m guessing the SA-2 would have ruined a B-58’s day. And of course, it would have been impossible for the B-58 to reach all the way into Soviet Airspace at Mach-2; it could only do this for a half hour or so.

    • Oleh Danyliv said, on June 6, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Lol, this is bonkers.

  2. Tschafer said, on June 4, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    That story about Hustlers buzzing the Kremlin is just crazy enough to be true, in some form – as SLnoted in his comments about fictionalized pilot accounts of flying F-105’s in combat over Vietnam, the stuff that seems unbelievable or hokey is probably the true stuff. Anyway, what a beautiful machine. You have to wonder, why can’t we seem to push the envelope like that anymore? I mean, yeah, it was nuts, but it was nuts in the way that the Colessus of Rhodes or massive Roman aqueducts or the Great Wall of China or the Moon landings were nuts. I miss that kind of nuts; it’s very often the kind of thing that, rightly or wrongly, civilizations are remembered for.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 7, 2012 at 4:28 am

      As Vijay Prozak puts it, four words to save your life: “our civilization is declining.”

      I can’t imagine it, because I don’t believe the B-58 was immune to SA-2 missiles. Also, because we were already close to a nuclear war: penetrating Russian airspace could have been the trigger. Not that overflights didn’t happen, but they seemed to happen a lot more a decade or so earlier:

  3. RufusT said, on June 7, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    The way it was explained to me was that the B-58s flew the whole way at approx Mach 1, ON THE DECK, literally “under the radar”…In Vietnam, planes flying low were hit not by SA-2s but by masses of triple A….Unlike NVA gunners in Vietnam, any personnel in triple a batteries surrounding Moscow had no real world experience shooting at attacking AC,had no idea the B-58s were coming & couldn’t see them in the dark….IF you can’t track a plane on radar, or see it with the mark two eyeball, then Triple A, SAMS & interceptors are worthless……..

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 9, 2012 at 7:02 am

      That might work … except for the fact that they can’t actually go Mach 1 on the deck. Their deck was pretty high, too, considering the fact that they hadn’t invented terrain following radar yet. Eyeballing it at 600 knots and 50 feet sounds … inadvisable. And if Krhushchev could have seen them buzzing the Kremlin, he certainly could have shot them down.

      (oh, and thanks for your service!)

  4. Tschafer said, on June 7, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    Remember when that German kid flew a Cessna into Red Square? I’ve never heard how exactly how that happened, but I heard rumors that he flew REALLY low. Not sure how this applies to the B-58 story, but it’s interesting…

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 9, 2012 at 7:00 am

      He was tracked by SAMs and interceptors the whole time. The Rooskies were just too damned Glassnosty and nice to shoot him down:

      • Tschafer said, on June 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm

        My God, how did they know he wasn’t some maniac with a planeload of explosives, or anthrax, or something? And the Russians certainly didn’t hesitate to blast KAL 007 out of the sky. Makes you wonder if Gorby didn’t want to use it as an excuse to can a lot of top military types (which he did), so he let it happen. I remember how bizzare the whole business seemed at the time. Of course, the late 1980’s were pretty odd anyway, but still…

        At any rate, thanks for featuring an aircraft that was one of my favorites as a kid. No matter what its capabilities, or whether it was needed or not, the thing was just plain beautiful.

  5. t6c said, on June 21, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    The B-36 was fun as well. It was the B-58*SQRT(-1).

  6. Scott said, on October 10, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Here’s something neat I think. I know the man flying the Hustler in the last shot posted over Turkey. He’s alive and well and a real great guy to talk to. He has some GREAT stories about the plane! He’s flown it like he stole it! 😀 I found this shot in a postcard and having him autograph it. 😉

  7. Ronin said, on February 2, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    There’s a YouTube video you should look for on the B58. Apparently there deck was also quite low and at speed. You’ll see it in the video. I doubt the B58 flew over the Kremlin “but” there were other signs the Soviet could not ignore. Just search for Convair B-58 Hustler Low Level Bombing Capabilities
    By the way, the B1 has performed quite well as a non-nuclear bomber in the war on terror.
    As a cold warrior from the time who was ready to fight the last war, for me and many others it didn’t matter if there wasn’t anything to comeback too. We were going to make sure they didn’t survive either.
    As the tee-shirt says:
    “Peace is not my Profession. It’s Yours. War is my Profession and should You Fail at Your Job. I Will Not Fail at Mine”
    This was the attitude I had and of those around me. War is a terrible thing and yes we all preferred it to the alternative. But if the Leaders failed at keeping it we would not fail at doing our duty. It was a different time but there are men and women now who would carry out the same deadly duty.

    This kept more than one petty tyrant from trying something stupid.

    • Scott Locklin said, on February 2, 2016 at 8:21 pm

      Awesome comment; thank you for this and thank you for your service.

  8. The Leduc ramjet | Locklin on science said, on November 29, 2016 at 3:19 am

    […] Alexander Lippisch (a German designer responsible for the rocket powered Komet, the F-106 and the B-58 Hustler) had actually sketched a design for a supersonic coal burning interceptor during WW-2. The US also […]

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