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The B-58 Hustler 4-engined delta wing bomber came into service with the US Air Force (USAF) Strategic Air Command (SAC) at the beginning of the 60s and was, at that time, the pinnacle of technology. The B-58 could reach supersonic speeds even at full load and was specifically designed to carry nuclear weapons so as to provide a fast response to a Soviet attack, which, back in the Cold War of the 50s, was considered a constant threat.
As told by Peter E Davies in his book B-58 Hustler Units, the aircraft’s early safety record, with six major fatal accidents in its first 10,000 hrs of SAC service, improved markedly thereafter. However, the losses sustained in the early 1960s nevertheless resulted in the deaths of six crew members. B-58A 58-1020 was the first operational loss. A fuel manifold ruptured in flight on Dec. 27, 1961, causing fuel starvation and engine flame-out. Less than two months later, Feb. 15, 1962, a 43rd BW crew had to eject near Lawton, Oklahoma, from B-58A 59-2447 RAPID RABBIT when the flight control system developed a Mach trim problem. Again, the crew survived by ejection during an inverted spin, although the pilot, Maj John Irving, was injured due to a loose seat harness.
The occupants of 43rd BW aircraft 59-2459 were not so fortunate on Mar. 5, 1962 when a severe flight control system failure caused the jet to crash on take-off from Carswell, killing Capts Robert Harter and Jack Jones and 1 Lt James McKenzie. The latter had managed to successfully eject, only to land in the blazing wreckage. All B-58s were grounded for a month while the cause was investigated. Navigator Capt Duane Hickey was the only casualty in the crash of 59-2462 following another flight control system failure near Bunker Hill AFB on Apr. 12, 1962.
A similar sequence of failures caused 305th BW aircraft 61-2057 to break up during a supersonic run on Sept. 14, 1962, the aircraft yawing violently until it was effectively travelling sideways at almost Mach 2. Its pod and tail assembly both broke away and the rest of the airframe disintegrated. All three crewmen, Lt Col John Trevisani and Capts Arthur Freed and Reinardo Moure, were killed. Travelling at such extreme speeds obviously left no time to try and deal with any flight control or engine problems, with catastrophic consequences for the crew. At a more mundane, but equally lethal, level, a hard landing at Bunker Hill destroyed 61-2063 on Aug. 26, 1963, and pilot Maj William Brandt was the only survivor.
Another near fatality occurred during a simulated bomb-run by a 305th BW aircraft, the Hustler being intercepted by an ADC F-106A travelling at Mach 2. As the fighter approached from the rear, the bomber’s right main undercarriage suddenly extended. Although its doors were ripped away and control problems ensued, the Hustler crew managed to return their aircraft to Bunker Hill, leaving the F-106A pilot perplexed at this unorthodox method of rapid deceleration and evasion.
There were some circumstances in which even the complex Stanley capsule could not save aircrew. Nuclear-armed B-58A 60-1116 was taxiing out at Bunker Hill for a minimum interval take-off (MITO) exercise on Dec. 8, 1964 when the left main wheels hit a metal electrical installation at the edge of the runway. Unable to see the obstruction, pilot Capt Leary Johnson assumed they had rolled into some mud and gunned the throttles. The extra strain collapsed the left undercarriage, fuel gushed from a ruptured wing tank and a conflagration broke out.
Although fully aware that the escape capsule was not rated for ground speeds below 100 knots, navigator Capt Manuel ‘Rocky’ Cervantes realised that the fire would reach his cockpit first so he ejected. The capsule rocketed him 400 ft up into the air before he landed heavily in a snowdrift, a lack of insufficient forward speed preventing his main parachute from opening. Cervantes died an hour later. Johnson and DSO Capt Roger L Hall abseiled down ropes from the blazing wreck and ran clear before the aircraft exploded.
A second accident on Jun. 14, 1967 revealed another parachute deployment problem. Maj Clint Brisendine was flying B-58A 61-2061 over Lipscombe County, Texas, when his windscreen was damaged by a violent hail storm. He closed his capsule doors and continued to steer the aircraft, although he could not use the throttles. Knowing that he could not ‘de-capsulate’, he gave the order to eject. Brisendine and DSO Capt Gary M Cechett escaped successfully, but navigator Capt William R Bennett perished when the automatic deployment system failed on his main parachute and a fault in the manual deployment mechanism meant that he could not use that either prior to hitting the ground.
Undercarriage problems persisted into the mid-1960s. B-58A 60-1121 lived up to its “Can Do” nickname on Sep. 10, 1964 when the jet’s right undercarriage collapsed on touch-down at Carswell AFB. After momentarily righting itself, the bomber dipped its right wing and the outer nacelle began to scrape along the runway in a stream of sparks. The pilot’s canopy hatch was jettisoned, closely followed by the other two, as the hectic slide continued, with sparks trailing from both right engine nacelles. With the wing and nacelles flexing dangerously, the aircraft finally lurched to a stop on the grass runway border. The navigator exited fast, using his escape rope, and he ran ahead of the crash while the other crew men remained standing in their cockpits (the pilot throwing his helmet down onto the grass) as the emergency vehicles and fire-suppressant helicopter closed in. There was no fire and the B-58 was repaired for another five years of service.
Accidents declined in number for the 305th BW after 1965, with only 59-2437 being lost during that time. Another victim of the B-58’s fragile undercarriage, the Hustler had a cylinder in the right main landing gear fail on take-off. The crew (Maj George Tate and Capts Ray Walters and Mosson) had to manage a landing with a partially collapsed right gear leg. All survived, but the aircraft, although substantially intact, was not repaired.
Attrition within the 43rd BW remained high, however, with no fewer than seven Hustlers being destroyed in a variety of ways, including pilot error. B-58A 61-2065 (also used by the 305th BW) stalled on take-off from Bunker Hill on Nov. 13, 1967 when the pilot, Maj Galen Dultmeier, on his first solo flight, over-rotated the aircraft and continued to pull back on the control column in an attempt to coax the Hustler aloft. It stalled and crashed, killing the crew (Dultmeier, navigator Capt Ronald Schmidt and DSO Capt Leroy Hanson).
As Col Phil Rowe, a DSO who served with both the 43rd and 305th BWs in the early 1960s, pointed out, ‘The B-58 was not a forgiving bird. It demanded full attention. Adherence to strict procedures and keeping the fuel system in proper configuration was critical. So too was not over-stressing the airplane by pulling excessive g-forces. That was so important that restraints on elevon travel, up and down, were imposed by an automatic control mechanism’. A complex check-out of that g-limiting system was a vital part of every pre-flight procedure.
Another aircraft, 60-1119 City of Kokomo and its crew (pilot Maj Richard F Blakeslee, navigator Capt Floyd E Acker and DSO Capt Clarence D Lunt) were lost on Dec. 12, 1966 when it suddenly and inexplicably pitched downwards from 500 ft during a low-altitude nocturnal bomb run. Residents of McKinney, Kentucky, were awoken by a massive flash and explosion, and daylight revealed a crater 100 ft wide and 30 ft deep on local farmland.
In other mishaps, 59-2443 Bye Bye Birdie undershot its landing upon arriving at Le Bourget on Jun. 15, 1965, killing the pilot, Lt Col Charles Tubbs. In the final serious accident to befall the B-58 force, 61-2056 was abandoned on Apr. 18, 1969 near Danville, Illinois, after the crew detected `suspected systems anomalies’. In only four cases in the aircraft’s last four years of service was a mechanical failure blamed for a loss, and one of those Hustlers, 59-2454, was actually returned to airworthiness after being repaired — it had suffered structural failure of the forward fuselage section while taxiing at Little Rock.
The frequent references to the B-58’s high accident rate as the reason for its early withdrawal could only be justified by the ten losses between December 1958 and September 1962, when mechanical failure was indeed the principal cause. In all, 26 out of the total production of 116 were destroyed, although as with most highly innovative designs, the majority of these losses occurred during the flight test or service introduction phase.
B-58 Hustler Units is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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