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    Refuting Misconceptions: The B-58 Hustler’s Safety in Operations and Political Decline

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    In the annals of military aviation history, few aircraft have stirred as much controversy and myth as the Convair B-58 Hustler. Debuting in an era when speed was seen as the best defense against the burgeoning capabilities of surface-to-air missiles and enemy fighters, the B-58 stood out with its delta-wing design, capable of cruising to its target area at .91 Mach and then dashing at Mach 2-plus above 50,000 feet. Its maiden flight on November 11, 1956, promised a new chapter in aerial warfare, yet its service was marred by misconceptions and political wrangling.

    The B-58’s perceived high accident rate during its test and development program earned it a dangerous reputation, with 26 aircraft destroyed in accidents and 36 crew members lost. However, it’s essential to understand that half of all Hustlers lost to accidents occurred before the aircraft became operational, reflecting the rigorous research and development necessary for a bomber that aimed to be twice as fast as its predecessors. Test pilot Joe Cotton remarked on the challenges faced: “When you look at all the flight control problems, the fuel system, the landing gear and tire problems, everything we were up against—well, I always wondered if the Hustler had first flown in 1958 [instead of in 1956], we would probably have a few more fine people alive today.”

    Despite the initial setbacks, the operational safety record of the B-58 improved drastically post-development. Comparing the safety records of the B-58 and other contemporary aircraft like the SR-71 and F-111, the B-58’s accident rate (21%) was not exceptional. The SR-71, A-12, and YF-12 had a combined accident rate of 39%, and the F-111 family had an accident rate of 14%. These numbers suggest that the B-58’s safety record was comparable to other envelope-expanding military aircraft of the time.

    The B-58 broke numerous aviation records, exemplifying its performance and reliability. Howard Bialas, a B-58 defensive systems operator from 1958 to 1965, was the first person to accumulate 1,000 hours in the bomber. He was part of a crew that set three world speed records in the B-58 in 1961. These feats earned the crews prestigious awards, including the Mackay and Harmon Trophies.

    The General Dynamics TACT/F-111A (Serial #63-9778) banks over the Mojave Desert, January 29th,1976. Original from NASA . Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

    It wasn’t flight safety that led to the Hustler’s premature retirement but rather political factors and budgetary constraints. Influential Pentagon officials, coupled with Secretary of Defense McNamara’s perspective, led to the cancellation of the program. Despite the development of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles and the emergence of intercontinental ballistic missiles, former Air Force historian Richard P. Hallion argued that the B-58’s cancellation was premature. “That airplane had growth potential and could have been applied to long-range strike and air defense,” he stated.

    The last B-58 flew in January 1970, with navigator/bombardier Ben Baddley lamenting, “The B-58 was a fantastic airplane that broke new ground in so many ways. It’s a shame people never really appreciated it for all that it could and did do.”

    related images you might be interested.

    Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird, 64-17962, Duxford, IWM
    Chantilly VA – May 9, 2016: SR-71A Blackbird at the Udvar Hazy Museum. Developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works this spy plane operated during the Cold War, it would cruise at Mach 3+ due to its speed and altitude it outran enemy missiles.
    A NASA SR-71 refuels with an Edwards Air Force Base KC-135 during the first flight of the NASA/Rocketdyne/ Lockheed Martin Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE). Original from NASA . Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

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