In an era of fantastic aircraft, the B-58 Hustler was one of the most visually striking warplanes ever to fly. Its delta wing, giant engines, and remarkable performance gave rise to the myth that pilots could literally tear the wings off the bomber if they flew it too fast.
That wasn’t true, but the B-58 was nevertheless a difficult plane to fly. Although an engineering marvel, the Hustler suffered from appalling accident rate, high maintenance costs, and an obsolete mission profile. It would remain in service for only a decade, a dead-end in strategic bomber development.
The Hustler was a direct successor to the B-47 Stratojet in the medium bomber role. Medium bombers were expected to attack the Soviet Union from overseas bases. By the time the Hustler entered service, however, the distinction between the medium and the heavy bomber had narrowed, however. The advent of aerial refueling, combined with Air Force concerns about the security of forward airbases and the concerns of U.S. allies over the deployment of strategic nuclear weapons on their territory, meant that the B-58 would operate strictly from U.S. bases.
Convair had broken into the bombing game with the B-36 Peacemaker, which played the role of the USAF’s long-range strategic bomber for much of the 1950s. Huge and slow, the B-36 could cross oceans while carrying a hydrogen bomb, making it central to the U.S. nuclear deterrent. However, the appearance of the MiG-15 and similar Soviet interceptors rendered the B-36 utterly obsolete, and threatened to create problems even for newer jet aircraft such as the B-47 and the B-52.
The Hustler bore no resemblance to the Peacemaker. Delta-winged with four huge engines, the B-58 could break Mach 2 while carrying a combination nuclear weapon/fuel tank slung under its belly. Launched from U.S. bases and supported by a ring of KC-135 tankers, the B-58 would penetrate Soviet airspace at high speed and high altitude, evading Soviet interceptor and delivering its nuclear load to a variety of different targets. The Hustler first flew in 1956, and entered operational service in 1960. In all, the Air Force acquired 116 B-58s at a unit cost similar to the B-52 Stratofortress.
Like many of the early delta wing aircraft, the Hustler was a monster to fly. The plane had eccentric landing, take-off, stall and spin characteristics, which pilots often struggled to master. The Hustler also had an ambitious set of controls that did not always accord with the experience and capabilities of its pilots. The maintenance demands of the aircraft, which had many specialized systems, were also extremely high.
All of this led to a startling accident rate. Twenty-six of the 116 Hustlers were lost to accidents, resulting in a total loss rate of 22.4 percent over a service life of ten years. Although many aircraft in the early years of jet aviation suffered high accident rates, the Hustler stood out as one of the worst offenders, especially given the high unit cost. As one commentator wrote, if the USAF had not retired the B-58, the entire fleet would have attrited away to nothing in an alarmingly short period of time.
Like the B-36 and the B-47, the B-58 never dropped a bomb in anger. The Hustler never contributed to the Vietnam War, although it continued in its nuclear role while older B-52 dropped conventional ordnance on North Vietnam. The B-58 could theoretically have taken on a conventional bombing role, although its great speed and poor handling at low altitudes made it difficult to drop bombs with much accuracy.
Although the Air Force emphasized the need for a high-performance penetration bomber, it never particularly loved the B-58. General Curtis Lemay effectively turned around the deficiencies of the B-58 in order to argue for the B-70 Valkyrie, an even faster, higher flying bomber that would replace the B-52. For good or ill, however, the B-70 fell victim to the same forces as the B-58; a Secretary of Defense convinced that high altitude SAMs and fast, missile-carrying interceptors would render the bomber obsolete.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara gave the order to retire the fleet in 1965, which the Air Force completed by 1970. The bomber spent just short of a decade in service. A brief scheme to turn the B-58 airframe into a civilian jetliner predictably went nowhere. Its mission shifted back to the B-52, which could conduct low-altitude penetrations into Soviet airspace much more effectively than the Hustler. The conventional bombing role of the traditional medium bomber would shift to the fighter-bomber, first the FB-111 Aardvark (an aircraft with its own long set of struggles), and then multi-mission fighters such as the F-15, F-16, and (eventually) the F-35. The advent of precision-guided munitions meant that weapons load no longer dictated the effectiveness of a bomber.
The B-58s most lasting contribution came in popular culture, where its futuristic, dangerous appearance made it attractive to artists and directors. Most famously, a group of B-58s (redubbed “Vindicator”) destroyed Moscow in the 1964 film Fail-Safe. Mistakenly ordered to attack Moscow, the bombers evaded Soviet air defenses and dropped their nuclear payloads, forcing the President of the United States to order the destruction of New York.
The B-58 was one among several tributes to the Air Force’s post-war commitment to the strategic bomber. The Air Force gained its independence on the back of the B-17, the B-24, and the B-29, the bombers that had undertaken the great aerial offensives of World War II. The senior leadership that came out of that war remained committed to the idea of the war-winning strategic bombing offensive for a very long time. Only the advent of the SAM, the disaster of Vietnam, and the passing of this generation would crack the USAF’s commitment to bombers like the B-58.
But ICBMs could fly even higher and faster than bombers, making Soviet air defenses redundant. And Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles could provide a far greater degree of security to the U.S. deterrent than vulnerable bombers on continuous patrol. Only planes like the B-52, with enough flexibility to handle a variety of different kinds of mission, would survive.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Information Dissemination and the Diplomat.
Image: Flickr/San Diego Air and Space Museum