Don't Touch that Switch!!

by Phil Rowe

Our mission: Rendezvous with another B-58 northwest of Milwaukee and follow it all the way back to the runway at our Indiana base. Once we acquired visual contact, confirmed the tail number and got in formation with it, we were to follow it all the way to the ground. That was an unusual assignment.

The reason for these extraordinary procedures lie in the nature of the flight our sister ship was making. For that other B-58 was in the process of setting the world speed record from Tokyo, Japan to Chicago. On board our TB-58 was a steward of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI). His job was to verify the authenticity of the B-58 arriving over Chicago, time the arrival and physically check for a numbered railroad type seal affixed to the airplane at takeoff.

The gentleman who would fly with us was an experienced aviator. He was chosen to represent the FAI because of his reputation and credentials in such matters. But he had never flown in a B-58 before. Flying with him was an experience.

Several hours before our chase flight we met with the Steward to brief him on the airplane, safety procedures and review the flight plan. My pilot and I were to bring him along in the TB-58, a two-pilot trainer version of the supersonic Hustler delta-wing bomber. That version of the B-58 was equipped with two pilot stations. Normally the instructor pilot would fly from the second station behind the front pilot. I, as the Defensive Systems Officer and flight engineer, flew in the rear seat. Each individual cockpit position was a small self-contained cockpit. From the front cockpit my pilot could not see or reach the passenger in the middle. From my rear seat I could, if necessary, crawl forward to access the second station.

We completed our mission planning and were driven out to the airplane for preflight checks about an hour before takeoff. Our passenger was shown the things he must know ... and the things he must not touch while we were in flight. For there were in the second station some controls and switches which afforded the instructor pilot normally flying there an override capability which might be needed to correct for a student pilot's errors. But since our passenger was by no means knowledgeable about the airplane, we carefully explained and showed him just what he needed to know. Most especially we showed him how to properly strap into the ejection seat, hook up the oxygen and intercommunications lines to his face mask, and operate the escape and ejection seat. He was obviously experienced enough in high performance jet aircraft to appreciate the importance of those features and readily understood our instructions.

We took off on schedule and headed northwest toward Chicago and then established a course from Milwaukee to intercept the incoming B-58 on its record-setting flight. About an hour out of Milwaukee we established radio contact with the other aircraft and at the proper time began a turn around to permit us to join in loose formation beside him. It was clear and cloudless. We readily acquired him visually, the long white contrail trailing behind him providing an easy target.

We flew side by side the last fifteen minutes or so to the Chicago area. Our steward timed the arrival and made notes in his official log. We were subsonic and cruising at just under Mach 1. I had my camera along and took some personal color slide pictures for my own collection. That sleek silver bird glistened in the brilliant sunlight. The pure white contrail dragged behind the racing needle-nosed B-58 was in striking contrast with the dark blue sky above.

Together we angled southeast towards our home base and began a gentle descent. Then we began our approach and letdown to the traffic pattern for landing. Wing to wing we came down final approach to the runway. The record-setter touched down and we made a go-around in a tight pattern allowing the Steward to keep a vigilant eye on the other ship the entire time. The we landed and taxied over to the plane that was our objective. Quickly we shut down our engines. A ladder was brought over to the side of our plane for the Steward who quickly scrambled down and dashed over to verify the seal number.

My pilot and I completed our After Landing Checklist and a visual inspection of the airplane. When we checked to make sure that our passenger had properly installed all of his ejection seat safety pins and turned off the equipment he was briefed to operate, we got a surprise. Somewhere along the line he had also moved some of the other switches which he should not have. Most disconcerting was that he had taken control of the fuel system. If he had done that at the wrong time in flight, we could have been in trouble. Luckily for us nothing happened.

Oh yes , the Steward did verify that the airplane we had joined up with was indeed the same one that had left Japan just hours earlier. The record flight was authenticated.