It Never Saw Combat, But The B-58 Hustler Was Ready To Destroy Countries

Robert Beckhusen

Key point: It would have heralded the end of the world.

On Nov. 11, 1956, the first B-58 Hustler took flight. It would never see combat. An exotic, beautiful bomber designed for high-speed nuclear strike missions, a change in Soviet tactics and a development method which dramatically hiked costs conspired to doom the Hustler — intended as a replacement for the jet-powered B-47 Stratojet.

Convair’s delta-wing Hustler was in some respects a fantastic aircraft, and as a supersonic jet bomber was capable of flying significantly faster — at Mach 2.0 — than the B-52 Stratofortress and the Stratojet. With a maximum altitude of 63,400 feet, it flew much higher than both of those bombers.

The Hustler was also small, for a bomber, with its 95.10-foot length and a 56.9-foot-wingspan. A B-52 is 64 feet longer and has 128 more feet of wing.

Speed was everything for the Hustler, as the Air Force aimed to have the bombers — armed with a single nine-megaton B53 nuclear bomb or four B43 or B61 nuclear bombs on four wing pylons — dash into the Soviet Union and China at speeds and altitudes that interceptors and surface-to-air missiles would have difficulty reaching.

In 1964, the CIA determined that the only Chinese aircraft possibly capable of intercepting it was the MiG-21 Fishbed and “even then” the chances of a successful hit would be “marginal.”

This was due in part to the Hustler’s four J79-GE-5A turbojet engines capable of individually producing 10,400 pounds of dry thrust. The delta wing shape also helped increase speed, but the resulting drag pushed the engineers to redesign the fuselage in a curved “coke-bottle” shape. A large bomb-and-fuel pod sat underneath the fuselage.

To reduce heat, Convair designed the B-58’s skin out of honeycombed fiberglass sandwiched between aluminum and steel plates, glued together instead of riveted. This engineering method would later inform future jet aircraft such as commercial airliners.

However, the Hustler’s small size created one of its biggest shortcomings for a jet designed to penetrate Soviet airspace — an unrefueled combat radius of only 1,740 miles. This would require the flying branch to base its Hustlers in Europe or devote substantial numbers of tankers for aerial refueling.

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