The Convair B-58 was the first supersonic bomber built in the US. The B-58 was an end result of a study conducted by Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation; done in 1946. The Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation was known for its interest in the delta-wing configuration. But the program was complex enough to involve a second contractor. Therefore, the Boeing came in picture.
The initial Convair design, as recommended by Dr. Alexander M. Lippisch, an eminent German scientist, predicted a ‘delta configured’-1, 00,000 pound bomber. The Boeing on the otherhand designed the aircraft as a conventional 200,000 pounded bomber. The two contractors followed two different development approaches, and drastically opposed each other’s concepts.
Three decisive personalities of that time were, Henry “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, Maj. Gen. Curtis L.eMay, the first Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development and Von Karman, the AAF’s chief scientific advisor. All of these men opted for an aircraft that will move with speeds far beyond the velocity of sound. On 14 October 1947, the impressive test flight of the Bell X-1 rocket airplane, a flight that shattered both the sound barrier and the speculation, became infinite. Development of the single place, air-launched X-1 was a major achievement for the US. Production of this 3 seat aircraft, capable of constant speeds approaching the ‘muzzle velocity’ of a 30 caliber bullet and of functioning effectively as a strategic bomber, would be a challenge of monumental proportions. The controversial B-58 program that ensued was to illustrate the dangers of untested technology in opposition to the necessity of pioneering state-of-the-art developments. Where to draw the line between the two remained open for a long time.
In late 1952, the US Air Force selected the Convair design over that of Boeing as it promised supersonic speed. Analysts said, the choice was not unexpected. In the Convair design, its reduced size cut the radar reflectivity and therefore, the probabilities of interception by surface-to-air missiles. Additionally, the Air Force’s development directive had reemphasized on the importance of high-speed and high-altitude performances. Moreover, Convair was familiar with the weapon system development technique.
Among the many revolutionary advances embodied in the B-58 Hustler was the use of new procedures and materials in constructing the aircraft. Special demands were made on the airframe structure, not only in terms of aerodynamic loads, but also by virtue of its high speed, which through skin friction at Mach 2 could heat the exterior surfaces above 250 degrees F. With the inboard jet engines venting their exhausts beneath the wing, there was also concern over sonic fatigue at high sound levels affecting the wing structure. Internally, the B-58 is framed like a Navy destroyer, with transverse duralumin spars, corrugated for strength, spaced only 11 to 15 inches apart running from one wing margin through the fuselage to the opposite wing. There are no chordwise ribs, only chordwise members or bulkheads to serve as attachments for elevons, engine nacelles and landing gear.
There is no physical communication between the three cockpits arranged in tandem, and except for the intercom each crew member is on his own, in cramped quarters which do not permit standing, for missions lasting 7 to 8 hours. The pilot has vision ahead and to the sides through a six-window wrap-around windshield, plus two small windows in the canopy for overhead vision. The navigator and defense systems operator have a minute window measuring not more than 4 x 6 inches on each side of their compartments.
Between 1962 and 1964, necessary but expensive modifications at B-58 took place. Technological advances had changed the anti-air defenses of the B-58. Significant problems remained there after. Defensive nuclear-tipped ‘air-to-air’ and ‘surface-to-air’ missiles appeared to prevent penetration of enemy airspace at high altitude. When flying at low level, the B-58 structure suffered significant fatigue damage. Manufacturer did not go on with extensive modifications due to excessive cost. Soon after, all theB-58s were phased out of the Air Force inventory by early 1970, less than 8 years after the last ones rolled off the assembly line.
The Air Force all together purchased 116 B-58s, less than half than it initially planned. Eight were equipped as TB-58A training aircraft. It broke 12 world speed records and won almost every major aviation award in existence. The supersonic B-58 Hustler, derived from a new concept took into account the greatly increased capability of ground defenses, including radar tracking and ground-to-air missiles.
Though the expensive B-58 program did not fulfill all of US Air Force’s requirements, it did express an important technological achievement. The Air Force took a risk with the $3 billion price tagged airline but achieved limited but revolutionary progress.