When most of us aviation people think of Convair’s B-58 Hustler we think of a sexy silver lawn dart looking airplane traveling at about 1300 mph at 40,000 feet and delivering nuclear weapons in the famous drop-able pod carried under the fuselage on centerline between the engines.
The idea was to fly fast and high over the air defenses of the Soviet Union and accurately deliver the weapons. In the 1960′s the Soviet Union started to deploy effective high altitude air defenses in the form of the SA-2 (NATO Code-name ‘Guideline’) surface to air missile (SAM) system. The missile had a range of about 45 miles at an altitude of about 60,000ft. Needless to say, right within the envelope of where the B-58 was expect to operate in wartime. On 1 May 1960, A USAF U-2 was shot down by as many as 3 SA-2s while on a photographic reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union.
The USAF, in particular Strategic Air Command, was rightfully concerned about the vulnerability of their bombers to Soviet high altitude SAMs. Incoming bombers could fly under the SAM radar and reduce detection range to target. All the SAC bombers at the time sought to change tactics as a result. Low level penetration was now the name of the game.
Operation Bulls Eye was the B-58 community’s response to change to low level tactics. Another objective of Operation Bullseye was to turn the B-58 into a more flexible weapon system with the addition of externally carried conventional weapons. Possible use for the Hustler would have been in the war in Vietnam.
The program itself was conducted in April 1967 and had the B-58 configured as a pathfinder aircraft and conventional iron bomber. The program originated out of Eglin AFB, FL and utilized Hustlers from the 305th Bomb Wing. Various weapons ranges at Eglin, Nellis, AFB, NV, and Matagorda Island. Other tests within the program replaced the Hustler’s navigator/bombardiers with F-4 Phantom Weapon Systems Officers (WSOs). The Hustlers were configured with up to 3,000 lbs of bombs and flew as many as 3,000 sorties over a 27 day period. Almost all the bomb drops were done visually without assistance from the B-58s bombing/navigation system. During testing a Hustler was damaged by it’s own bomb fragment with minor damage.
It was during these test the Hustler was painted in the South East Asia Camouflage (the war in Vietnam was going on at the time). I make a note of it here because, for Hustler enthusiasts, the infamous SEA-camo Hustler is a bit like Bigfoot. Everyone has heard of it but no one as a picture I’ve never seen pictures only renditions of the paint scheme:
I have heard of first hand sightings of the Hustler painted as such but sadly never any pictures.
Operation Bulls Eye proved the feasibility but in the end but concerns over the high operating cost and the perceived vulnerability of the Hustler’s subsystems, in particular the integral wing tanks, to ground fire. Other problems included the difficulty maintain visual contact within a formation and vulnerability of that formation to ground fire and SAMs. The results of the tests themselves showed little if any gain in the Hustler’s bombing accuracy.
What’s it’s like to low level in a B-58? See the video below. The in cockpit footage is amazing:
Although not a video from Operation Bullseye, does show low level testing that was done in another program, so at least in theory the Hustler would have a good low level bomber. Pure speed and a large delta wing for relatively docile gust response made it a natural for the low level penetration role. Ironically, the Hustler was replaced by a bomber that did fulfill a low bomber role, the FB-111.
You can find more on the B-58 here.