Cardboard Cockpit

by Phil Rowe
There I was, assigned to the latest and greatest Air Force program, the B-58. I was actually going to become a member of a three-man flight crew on that supersonic wonder, America's very first Mach 2 strategic bomber. You can't imagine my delight.

The B-58 Hustler was, back in 1960, the most modern, most capable bomber in the Strategic Air Command. Oh sure, it couldn't carry the payload of the B-52 Stratofortress, and it was an airplane that General LeMay (SAC's Commander) didn't really want, but it was the hottest game in town and I was actually a part of the team. Wow!

My enthusiasm dimmed rather quickly when it came time to start ground school and get ready for actually flying in that marvelous plane. Why? Well part of the reason was discovering that the entire fleet was grounded. Engineering problems, the crash of a few test airplanes and some difficulties getting the birds back in the sky caused my schedule to slip, first a few weeks and then months.

In fact, it got so bad that they temporarily transferred a number of us in the student "pipeline" to other duties. Some of the former B-47 navigators were sent back to their old outfits to serve as short-term instructors. Others, like me, were assigned to jobs on the base that had little to do with aircrew tasks. I wound up as Adjutant (administrative officer) in a maintenance squadron.

Another factor which lessened the luster of my eventual re-start in ground school, after several months, was finding the training equipment and reference manuals in a sorry state. The typical Flight Manual (Dash-1) was merely a few 'thermo-fax' and barely readable copies from an ever-changing manufacturer's handbook. The cockpit procedures trainer, no way up to the standards of a flight simulator. It actually consisted of a cardboard mockup with black and white paste-on reproductions of cockpit panels and switches. Our checklists were simple typewritten replicas of the printed versions.

In ground school I spent hours sitting in a straight-back chair surrounded by that crude, non-functional cockpit procedures trainer. Our instructors stood behind us, leaning over our shoulders as we followed our checklists and pretended to operated the various switches and control knobs on the cardboard mockup. It wouldn't be until I actually sat in the real airplane that I touched and manipulated an actual switch or read a functioning fuel gage.

Those were the very early days of B-58 crew training. In later years Convair produced more traditional flight manuals and checklists for us to use. And eventually we got flight simulators that really simulated. By the time I left the B-58, five years later, the support documentation, simulators and equipment trainers were first-rate. It just took longer than anyone figured.