Aviation History

B-58 navigator recalls dropping Mark-53 nuclear bomb (without plutonium pit) while flying at 500 feet and at 628 knots, low level recce missions, dinner with Doolittle Raiders and Jimmy Stewart

B-58 Navigator

The US Air Force’s first operational supersonic bomber, the B-58 made its initial flight on Nov. 11, 1956. In addition to the Hustler’s delta wing shape, distinctive features included a sophisticated inertial guidance navigation and bombing system, a slender “wasp-waist” fuselage and an extensive use of heat-resistant honeycomb sandwich skin panels in the wings and fuselage.

CLICK HERE to see The Aviation Geek Club contributor Linda Sheffield’s T-shirt designs! Linda has a personal relationship with the SR-71 because her father Butch Sheffield flew the Blackbird from test flight in 1965 until 1973. Butch’s Granddaughter’s Lisa Burroughs and Susan Miller are graphic designers. They designed most of the merchandise that is for sale on Threadless. A percentage of the profits go to Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. This nonprofit charity is personal to the Sheffield family because they are raising money to house SR-71, #955. This was the first Blackbird that Butch Sheffield flew on Oct. 4, 1965.

Since the thin fuselage prevented the carrying of bombs internally, a droppable, two-component pod beneath the fuselage contained a nuclear weapon — along with extra fuel or other specialized gear. The B-58 crew consisted of a pilot, navigator/bombardier and defense systems operator.

My Dad, Richard “Butch” Sheffield, was flying the B-47 as navigator/bombardier, he volunteered for the then brand new B-58


As he explains in his unpublished book “The Very First,” the USAF needed a long-range, low-level reconnaissance system. This became apparent during the Cuban missile crisis. General Powers, CINCSAC, ordered the 43rd Bomb Wing to do it, and we did.

He recalls;

‘Our crew was selected. Only six crews in the wing were made “Mainline crews.” They are the best crews in the wing.

‘We trained at five hundred feet and six hundred knots. The radar was almost useless at the low altitude, so we had to navigate by dead reckoning and map reading. It was exhilarating flying that fast at those low levels. I don’t believe most SAC personnel knew about this capability.

Richard Butch Sheffield (in the middle) B-58 crew.

‘The B-58 reconnaissance crew’s code name was “Mainline.” The fact of that the B-58 had a reconnaissance capability was kept close hold so our adversaries did not know.

‘Our crew was selected to fly to the UK with the reconnaissance pod on board. The flight was uneventful. A far cry from the first time I had crossed the Atlantic all by myself shooting stars the whole time. The B-58’s navigation system was almost automatic. It had a star tracker for heading, Doppler for ground speed and inertial for all movement of the airframe.

‘After we landed, another crew took the aircraft to France and then back home to Carswell. The B-58 program did not treat its crews well like the program I was heading for did [the SR-71 Blackbird program]. They could have arranged a better way for us to return home, but did not.’

Dropping Mark-53 nuclear bomb (without plutonium pit)

He continues;

‘SAC had a program called “Dual Exhaust.” The program was to test the reliability of the real nuclear weapons SAC possessed. We were selected to drop a real Mark-53 nuclear weapon at White Sands test range in New Mexico with the nuclear pit removed [Plutonium].

‘We dropped it at five hundred feet about the ground and at six hundred and twenty-eight knots. After release, we pitched up into a forty-five-degree bank and watched it go off. It looked just like a nuke explosion.

Jimmy Stewart in front of his B-52

‘We decided to fly back to Carswell subsonic with altitude hold off, to see how high the aircraft would go without the pod on it. It just keeps climbing, higher and higher, we finally stopped the climb at about *forty seven thousand feet. This was the only time I was never in a B-58 without the pod; it sure flew like a bird without one.’

B-58 navigator at dinner with Doolittle Raiders and Jimmy Stewart

Dad continues;

‘Our Wing Commander, B/G Brick Holstrom, was a “Doolittle Raider.” He was one of the first pilots to take off from the aircraft carrier Hornet to bomb Tokyo. He was as fine of a gentleman as I ever knew. He really liked our crew, I think it was because of Dick Reynolds and his can do attitude.

‘On April 18, 1964, the “Raiders” all got together in Ft. Worth for one of their annual reunions and we got to attend. Jimmy Stewart was master of ceremonies. General Doolittle was there and all the living raiders. It was a fine affair.’

Dad stayed with the B-58s until he was hired away to the SR-71 program in 1964. After he passed the astronaut physical with no problems at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas, he arrived at Beale Air Force Base, home of the USAF Blackbird fleet, in early March 1965.

Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Twitter X Page Habubrats SR-71 and Facebook Page Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder Habubrats for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: Linda Sheffield Miller and U.S. Air Force

Linda Sheffield Miller

Grew up at Beale Air Force Base, California. I am a Habubrat. Graduated from North Dakota State University. Former Public School Substitute Teacher, (all subjects all grades). Member of the DAR (Daughters of the Revolutionary War). I am interested in History, especially the history of SR-71. Married, Mother of three wonderful daughters and four extremely handsome grandsons. I live near Washington, DC.

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