B-58 Program Reflections

Something Very Special

by Phil Rowe
We all like to think that what we do in our lives is special and worthwhile. If that includes a measure of excitement, an element of danger, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from meeting challenges head-on, then we are indeed fortunate .

That's the way I feel about my days in the B-58 bomber program. At the time, in the late 1950's and early 60's, the B-58 was brand new. It was the latest and greatest, the hottest and fastest, and the most challenging airplane in the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The lucky few who got assigned to the program were in for the thrills of their lifetimes.

I got into the program as the "one other" in a request received at the headquarters of my B-52 Bomb Wing at Fairchild AFB, Washington. The official notice required my outfit to furnish a Captain Leonard M. Barnes (by name) and one other, one with particular experience and credentials. The "one other" had to have 2000 hours of flight time, combat crew experience and have served on a "Lead" or Select" SAC flight crew. I had those minimum qualifications and was recommended by my commanding officer for the assignment. It didn't bother me at all to be known as merely the "one other" for I was just a first lieutenant.

My background as both a radar navigator (Air Force job specialty code of 1525) and electronic warfare officer (1575) seemed to satisfy the decision-makers sending people to join the new B-58 program. At the time the airplane was still undergoing engineering and operational acceptance testing by the Air Force. Production had barely started and there were few of the new supersonic, delta-winged wonders in the inventory. Those that did exist were to be found only at Carswell AFB, Texas and Edwards AFB, California. It was still considered to be under evaluation and not ready for operational status.

I was among the early group assigned to the test force. Others were already in place ahead of me and helping to complete operational suitability assessments of SAC's replacement for B-47 medium bombers. The crew training organization was just getting its act together to start checking out new flight crews to become operational with the plane in the months ahead.

As in many new aircraft programs, there were problems which delayed and delayed crew training. The whole fleet was from time-to-time grounded while engineers hastened to find out why systems failed to work, airplanes crashed or newcomers were having so much trouble becoming accustomed to the bird. It was a frustrating time for those pressed to meet deadlines, get crews upgraded and ready both men and equipment for combat readiness. This was during the peak of the "cold war" and tensions were high.

It was also the time when ground crews and maintenance troops were learning how to service and fix the strange new planes. They lacked technical manuals, special tools and support equipment, and discovered new quirks of the airplane each day. Even the highly sophisticated and realistic flight simulators, which we take for granted today, did not exist to support training of pilots and crews. We did have cardboard replicas of our cockpits, on which to practice checklist procedures and learn where things were in the actual airplane. But it would be months before functional simulators came along.

To help pilots learn the peculiar flight characteristics and quirks of delta-winged airplanes, TF-102 two-seat fighters were made available. For some bomber pilots that was the first introduction to the unique and very different behavior of an airplane with elevons instead of ailerons and elevators. Many had never flown a supersonic airplane and that posed new challenges and special handling procedures.

Navigators accustomed to reckoning their position in older planes that flew barely seven miles a minute had to learn to think in terms three times as fast. The Mach 2 B-58 flew at nearly 20 miles a minute at high altitude supersonic speeds. It became imperative that they adjust their scales of time and distance to stay ahead of this "Hustler". Some coped handily, but others never quite managed to adjust to such speed.

B-58 electronic warfare officers, known as defensive systems officers (DSO's), were also something new. There was nothing comparable to what ECM specialists had known in B-52's. B-47's or B-66's. This was something entirely new and different for those fellows. And perhaps the biggest challenge for those men with backgrounds seeking out and jamming radar signals and communications was taking on duties akin to flight engineers. They found themselves immersed in aircraft performance calculations, concerned about weight and balance, and working a little like a co-pilot but not having a stick or throttle. But they did have a 20mm radar controlled gatling gun to operate, and that too was quite different.

The B-58 was not an easy airplane to master. Those who did were special and among the Air Force's finest. The flight crews, ground support crews and shop mechanics who learned to keep B-58's flying and ready to go to war were dedicated professionals. They earned the right to be proud, feel special and deserving of our nation's thanks for a job well done.