The Convair B-58 Hustler Was the First to Reach Mach 2 – The three-seat Convair B-58 Hustler was the first supersonic bomber in history and the first to reach Mach 2.
Designed to fly at high altitudes, it was the first aircraft constructed mainly from a heat-resistant stainless-steel “honeycomb sandwich,” and the first to have a slim body and fat payload pod. Its thin fuselage limited the ability to carry a bomb internally and instead was fitted with a two-component pod beneath the fuselage.
A child of the Cold War, it contained a nuclear weapon to strike targets in the Soviet Union or other USSR affiliates as well as extra fuel and even advanced reconnaissance equipment.
After dropping its payload – bomb and empty fuel tank – the bomber actually became significantly smaller.
B-58: A Speed Demon
Developed in the 1950s for the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC), the Hustler relied on speed as its primary defense. The thinking at the time was that with an aircraft that flew fast enough and even high enough, the enemy couldn’t shoot it down. While the technical difficulties were gigantic, the B-58 was still developed with amazing speed and success.
For its time, the B-58 Hustler was revolutionary in many ways. It featured a tailless radical delta wing shape, but it also included sophisticated inertial guidance navigation and bombing system, as well as a slender “wasp-waist fuselage.
The Convair B-58’s aerodynamic design allowed the first production model to reach supersonic flight, where it flew faster than Mach 2 for more than an hour.
While having to refuel one time, the bomber was able to travel 1,680 miles in just 80 minutes.
Over the course of the platform’s career with SAC between 1960 and 1970, B-85s went on to set 19 world speed and altitude records, while the aircraft also won five different aviation trophies.
The B-58 Hustler was also unique in the crew configuration. The pilot, navigator, and defense-systems operator sat in tandem in encapsulated cockpits, each capable of being ejected in an emergency. The cockpits were even separated by banks of equipment.
The crew had no physical contact with each other, but Air & Space Magazine reported that it was common for the crew to pass notes via a string and pulley system that ran along the cabin wall.
The speed of the aircraft made it difficult for an enemy fighter to catch the B-58, but any type of catastrophic airframe or system failure proved nearly fatal for the crew.
Originally the aircraft was equipped with only standard rocket-propelled ejection seats, which couldn’t be used safely at Mach 2, and later, the aircraft was subsequently retrofitted with an encapsulated ejection system.
Convair built 116 B-58s including 30 test and pre-production aircraft along with 86 for operational service. Hustlers flew in the Strategic Air Command between 1960 and 1970. Today, there are eight surviving B-58s, including the “Cowtown Hustler,” which set three speed records while flying from Los Angeles to New York and back on March 5, 1962. For that effort, the crew received the Bendix and Mackay Trophies for 1962.
The aircraft has been in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force since December 1969.
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.