The Convair B-58 Hustler was the first supersonic bomber to enter operational service with the USAF. 116 were built, of which 86 entered service (the other 30 were test aircraft, prototypes etc.). The B-58 was in service from 1960 to 1970 as a frontline nuclear deterrent. It was one of the assets of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which operated from 1946 to 1992 when it was broken up into separate commands. SAC was in control of all USAF land based strategic bombers and nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) along with the aircraft required to support this role such as air to air refueling, strategic reconnaissance and airborne command posts.
The big delta wing and relatively thin and streamlined fuselage accompanied with 4 powerful General Electric J-79 engines (the same as in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter) enabled the B-58 to reach supersonic speeds. The J-79 engine with afterburner provided 15,000 pounds of thrust each and a top speed of 2,132 km/h / 1,325 mph! One fast bomber! Cruising speed was 982 km/h / 610 mph (faster than the top speed of the previous bomber used in this role, the B-47). The weapons load of 8,820 kg / 19,450 lb would have been made up of up to 4 nuclear bombs in a weapons pod or on under wing pylons.
The range of the B-58 un-refueled was 7,080 km / 4,400 mile. Compromises had to be made for high-speed and this was not enough to make it unrefueled to Moscow from the continental USA.
The Hustler carried an aircrew of 3 who sat in tandem: a pilot, a navigator/bombardier and a defensive systems operator. The latter controlled the electronic counter measures and a remote-controlled 20mm cannon in the tail (they also operated as a performance engineer).
Originally conceived as a high level bomber, the B-58 replaced the Boeing B-47 Stratojet (bomber variants were in service from 1951 to 1969) in the Strategic Air Command. Improvements in the Soviet’s defensive Surface to Air Missiles (SAM’s) soon changed the role of the B-58 to being a low-level penetrator to minimize visibility and exposure time to the missiles. Unfortunately at lower altitude the B-58 could not fly at supersonic speeds and its range was reduced. Thus its effectiveness was also reduced and eventually it’s relatively short career was ended in 1970 with the introduction of the smaller, faster (top speed Mach 2.5) and harder to hit swing-wing General Dynamics FB-111A (retired in 1991 or converted to the F-111G variant which was retired in 1993).
The FB-111A was itself supplemented with a modern equivalent of the B-58; the swing-wing Rockwell B-1 Lancer which was introduced in 1986 initially as a nuclear bomber and later with conventional munitions. The B-1 continues in USAF service today and is used as a low-level penetrator with a top speed at altitude of Mach 1.25. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress (the earliest variants came into service in 1955 and the latest are still in use today!), B-1 and Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit “Stealth Bomber” (entered service in 1997) serve as the “Big 3” strategic bomber force of the USAF today.
Although the Hustler only had a brief career, in its day it set 19 world speed and altitude records such as New York to Paris in 3 hours and 19 minutes (1961) and a Los Angeles to New York roundtrip in 4 hours and 41 minutes (1962)! A B-58 called “Greased Lightning” set a record in 1963 flying from Tokyo to London (a distance of 12,920 km / 8,028 miles) in 8 hours, 35 minutes! The average speed during the flight was 1509 km/h / 938 mph and 5 inflight refueling’s were required to make that distance. Now if only modern air travel was that fast!
Today “Greased Lightning” is on display at the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska. I recently visited this excellent museum that contains the major Cold War assets of the former Strategic Air Command (operated from 1946 to 1992) including the previously mentioned B-47, B-52, FB-111 and B-1 along with the monstrous Convair B-36 Peacemaker (the largest piston engine aircraft ever mass-produced and in service from 1949 to 1959 – 6 rear facing prop engines and 4 jet engines under the wings)! In the entrance foyer is also a fantastic display of the fastest aircraft to see regular service in the USAF, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spy reconnaissance aircraft capable of speeds up to Mach 3.5!