Ironically, the B-58A’s only operational strategic mission in a conflict situation was a Quick Check reconnaissance flight by aircraft 55-0668 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The U.S. 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. Since the thin fuselage prevented the carrying of bombs internally, a droppable, two-component MB-1 pod beneath the fuselage contained a nuclear weapon – along with extra fuel.
As told by Peter E Davies in his book B-58 Hustler Units, in April 1956 a further podded store was proposed for the high-altitude electronic reconnaissance RB-58A variant carrying a very sophisticated Hughes AN/APQ-69 side-looking airborne radar (SLAR) set that was then under development. Its microwave energy was transmitted at an angle from the side of the aircraft for functions such as terrain mapping. Convair began studies in September 1958 of a Hustler using a SLAR pod containing the Hughes AN/APQ-69 designator set. This technology eventually found application in tactical reconnaissance aircraft.
Its massive pod was very different from the normal MB-1, extending further aft and requiring a different, angular cross-section. The SLAR’s size, weight and 50-ft-long antenna would have left no room for fuel within the pod, significantly reducing the Hustler’s range and limiting it to subsonic speeds. Although the SLAR pod was flight-tested in 1959, producing satisfactory results at ranges of up to 50 miles, it had in fact been cancelled the previous year like the other dedicated reconnaissance options.
The company’s attempts to introduce Strategic Air Command (SAC) reconnaissance or ECM Hustlers continued in the late 1950s, despite the ‘ferret’ ECM system for the aircraft having also been cancelled in May 1958. Its Melpar ALD-4 ECM equipment was used in RB-47s instead, and attrition amongst these specialist aircraft temporarily regenerated interest in an ALD-4-carrying Hustler as a faster alternative in 1960.
However, a USAF request in 1958 for an all-weather reconnaissance system for testing on a B-58A led to Convair asking the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation to submit proposals for suitable equipment in Project Quick Check. YB-58 55-0668 PeepingTom, the ninth aircraft to be produced, was converted to RB-58 configuration before eventually becoming a TB-58A. As a YB-58, it was also selected to flight-test the J79-GE-9 engines that would have powered the stillborn B-58B. In June 1958, during the jet’s RB-58A period, it was fitted with a Quick Check modified MB-1 pod equipped with a Goodyear AN/APS-73 X-Band synthetic aperture radar behind a fibreglass nose radome in a pod that also contained fuel. A Raytheon forward-looking radar was installed in the aircraft’s nose within a slightly enlarged radome and a new stellar tracking device was fitted above the navigator’s cockpit. Radar imagery was recorded on five-inch film using an AN/GSQ-28 optical signal processor.
Ironically, the B-58A’s only operational strategic mission in a conflict situation was a Quick Check reconnaissance flight by 55-0668 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Manned by a Convair/General Dynamics crew, the modified Hustler flew a single ELINT mission along the northern coast of Cuba on Oct. 30, 1962. The AN/APS-73 was effective in providing detailed, all-weather terrain mapping at supersonic speeds over an 80-mile range, and the Cuba flight was duly performed at high-speed. The results achieved with the pod proved to be better at subsonic speeds, however. The Quick Check programme was cancelled in late 1962, while the ELINT mission remained with other aircraft types.
B-58 Hustler Units is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force