Humpty Dumpty Hustlers

by Phil Rowe
You want to see something scary, really scary? Then go to one of the Air Force's major airplane repair depots. If you are a crewmember on an airplane that goes through major maintenance overhauls, you don't want to see what goes on there. You'll never again feel the same about your favorite birds.

One day our crew was sent to Kelly Field near San Antonio, Texas. There we were to retrieve one of our B-58's and bring it back home to Indiana. The so-called IRAN maintenance process involved more than just simply opening up a few access panels and checking the airplane's systems. (I)nspection and (R)epair (A)s (N)ecessary required a complete tear-down and look at all of the major structure and systems which comprised our supersonic bombers. It looked like Humpty Dumpty was in charge. It meant practically a complete dis-assembly, making our planes look like just a skeleton and a pile of parts.

We certainly had doubts about making a test flight in the plane we'd been sent to retrieve. For we knew it had just undergone that complete tear-down, like the others we'd seen in our tour of the hangars. We just weren't all that sure that it had been put together completely. Were there extra pieces and parts that didn't make it? Did those folks at the IRAN facility know as much about the plane as the original manufacturer? We had nagging doubts.

But there we were, out on the Kelly flightline, getting ready to take our bird up for a test hop. It would be a short one of just a couple hours. That should be long enough to check out all of the systems. About all we couldn't check, with our light fuel load, were the supersonic capabilities. We didn't have enough gas to accelerate from normal subsonic cruise of Mach 0.91 to Mach 2.0. All we could verify was the basic capabilities. But then we weren't sure we really wanted to stress that airplane as much as supersonic flight would require.

"Okay, guys. Cross your fingers," our pilot said as we taxied out toward the end of the runway.

So far so good, I thought. Everything checks out to this point. Then I began reading the Take-Off Checklist items and noting the positive responses from the front cockpit.

The Hustler really scampered down that runway, even though we were lighter than normal and didn't use the afterburners. In barely 6000 feet we were airborne. The climb-out was smooth and quieter than usual. We leveled off at 26000 feet and stayed within a hundred miles of Kelly, just in case we needed to make a quick return landing.

Our navigator, in the middle cockpit, was muttering something about things going awry. Finally, he announced that the gyro's had tumbled and he couldn't get them aligned. His radar picture was askew about 60 degrees and there was no way this bird could make a bomb run, practice or for real. Humpty Dumpty had not been completely put back together again.

After landing we taxied back toward the maintenance hangars. We'd called the repair folks on our radios and they were waiting for us with a "bread truck". The engines were shut down and we de-planed to await the decision on whether or not repairs could be made, or would we have to return via commercial air without bringing the Hustler back home.

In about two hours the repair crews assured us that all was well. They'd replaced a defective part and things were back within tolerance. Yeah, sure, we thought. Within tolerance for them, but we were the ones who would fly her.

Despite our, or at least my, trepidation, the bird was fully fueled and we were sent off on the flight from Texas to Indiana. Along the way we would practice navigation and bombing, though our results would not count against us if things turned out badly. Since this was technically just a ferry flight our scored didn't count.

Luckily, our Humpty Dumpty seemed to be back in one piece and working as it should. The gyros behaved and the navigator's radar worked well. We landed after about four hours and by then felt a bit better about the airplane. Those guys in Texas really had put it all back together, and there were no extra parts lying about. Whew!