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The First US Supersonic Bomber to Be Lethal

On January 1, 1970, the remaining B-58 was officially retired. Only eight of the original 116 B-58s are still flying.

The United States is no stranger to supersonic jets; every first requires a follow-up. The Convair B-58 Hustler was the first American bomber to break the sound barrier.

The U.S. Air Force’s B-58 Hustler made its first flight on Veterans Day, 1956, and entered active duty on March 15, 1960.

She was made by the now-defunct Convair Division of General Dynamics, which also made the F-106 Delta Dart interceptor and the huge B-36 Peacemaker heavy bomber. She was meant to replace the B-47 Stratojet, which was the first American strategic jet bomber.

Federation of American Scientists (FAS) information page notes:

The SAB-51’s general operating requirements prevented the first supersonic bomber from replacing the B-47 as intended.

The B-58 was a significant departure in design, procurement strategy, and deployment philosophy from the B-47, with SAB-51 being the first time the Air Force sought significant technological breakthroughs. Specifications called for a medium-range bomber to carry nuclear weapons and fly at Mach 2 while leaving a small radar footprint. The B-58’s delta wing design was revolutionary for strategic bombers at the time. It was the first supersonic aircraft to feature outboard engine pods on the wings, and it had four turbojet engines with afterburners. Maximum takeoff gross weight was 160,000 pounds; wing span was 56 feet, 10 inches; wing sweep was 60 degrees; the overall length was 96 feet, 9 inches; height at the tail was 29 feet, 11 inches. One pilot, navigator, and operator of the defense systems sat in tandem. Although a modification gave every crew member their ejection capsule in case of a supersonic bailout, the confined conditions of the crew cockpit made long missions such as airborne alerts extremely taxing.

Yogi, a two-year-old black bear, was used to test the ejection capsule for the first time in real life. They put Yogi to sleep after he miraculously lived through being thrown out of the window to check his organs for damage.

At a top speed of 1,319 mph (2,122 kph or 1,146 knots), the B-58 was the first operational Mach 2 bomber and the first aircraft to breach the sound barrier.

The swift warbird broke 19 world records for speed and altitude. It took home five aviation trophies for its efforts: the Bleriot Trophy, the Thompson Trophy, the Mackay Trophy, the Bendix Trophy, and the Harmon Trophy.

The Hustler was the first plane to use star-based inertial navigation and the first to have a honeycomb sandwich structure made of stainless steel.

The B-58 did not have a bomb bay but could carry one nuclear weapon externally by placing the centerline fuel pod over it. If they removed the fuel pod, the B-58 could carry four bombs (nuclear or conventional) on external hard points.

Despite her amazing powers, the Hustler ran into trouble due to mechanical faults and the ever-evolving capabilities of the enemy’s aerial defenses.

According to David Cenciotti, the founder and editor of The Aviationist and a former officer in the Italian Air Force:

After the Soviet Union put up highly accurate surface-to-air missiles at the end of 1965, it started phasing out the Hustler fleet because its high-altitude attack profile could no longer guarantee success against increasingly advanced Soviet air defenses. But the plane had a much higher chance of being lost by accident and cost much more to run than other bombers like the nearly indestructible Boeing B-52 Stratofortress.

Even though the B-58 never went into battle, the 1964 nuclear war thriller Fail-Safe starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Dan O’Herlihy. It is based on the novel by Eugene Burdock and Harvey Wheeler (best known to Generation X moviegoers as The Old Man in the original RoboCop), which made her somewhat famous.

In the movie Fail-Safe, The Hustler plays the role of “Vindicator,” a bomber mistakenly sent to Moscow to deliver “The Bomb.”

The Vindicator was a real American warplane but a WWII Navy dive bomber, not a Cold War USAF jet. Also, the late great Jimmy Stewart, a real-life USAF Brigadier General, flew in the back seat of a Hustler in the Air Force documentary film Champion of Champions.

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