by Adam Estes
The U.S. Air Force’s first operational supersonic bomber, the Convair B-58 Hustler, made its initial flight on November 11th, 1956. In addition to the bomber’s massive delta wing, distinctive innovations included a sophisticated Sperry AN/ASQ-42 inertial navigation and bomb guidance system, a slippery “wasp-waist” fuselage, and an extensive use of heat-resistant, honeycomb sandwich skin paneling in both the wings and fuselage. Since the airframe’s fuselage cross-section provided too little room for internal ordinance storage, Convair’s engineers came up with a unique solution, designing a massive, jettisonable, two-component pod slung under the fuselage which contained a nuclear weapon in the upper section, along with extra fuel, reconnaissance equipment, or other specialized gear in the lower portion. The B-58 crew consisted of a pilot, navigator/bombardier, and defense systems operator.
Convair built 116 Hustlers, of which the first thirty were test and pre-production examples while the remaining 86 entered operational service. Hustlers flew within Strategic Air Command between 1960 and 1970. Setting 19 world speed and altitude records, B-58s also won five different aviation trophies.
Castle Air Museum’s Hustler is the seventh example to roll off North American’s production line in Fort Worth, Texas. A pre-production airframe, YB-58A-1-CF 55-0666 flew for the first time on March 20th, 1958. As it’s type prefix suggests, this Hustler served as a test aircraft with Convair, which fitted a YJ79-GE-5 jet engine on a special centerline pod. On November 8th, 1958, the aircraft flew for 32 minutes at a sustained Mach 2 velocity with its YJ79-GE-5 engines. On April 29th, 1959, the U.S. Air Force formally took ‘666 on strength, but the airframe remained with Convair for test and evaluation purposes. On May 1st, 1959, Convair converted the Hustler into YRB-58A configuration.
On August 16, 1962, the aircraft established a record, performing the then Hustler flight up to that point, remaining aloft for 11 hours and 15 minutes. In November that year, the Air Force transferred the airframe to the 6510th Operational Maintenance Squadron (Air Force Systems Command), at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California. In May 1964, the ‘666 moved on to the 3345th Maintenance and Support Group (Air Training Command) at Chanute AFB in Rantoul, Illinois, which subsequently redesignated the Hustler as a GRB-58A, for instructional use only.
In 1967 the Husler moved across the airfield for outdoor display in Chanute’s air park. Base technicians repainted the aircraft in the markings of B-58A 61-2059, a Hustler nicknamed Greased Lightning which became famous for flying an 8,028 nautical mile nonstop journey from Tokyo to London at an average speed of 938 mph in October, 1963. Oddly enough, the real 61-2059 still exists and is on public display at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum in Ashland, Nebraska.
With the closure of Chanute AFB in 1993, the U.S. Air Force Museum loaned 55-0666 to the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum, located in Grissom Hall, the former missile maintenance training facility at the now-decommissioned base. Placed indoors on static display, the airframe regained her correct serial number on the tail, but retained its Greased Lightning nose art. Unfortunately, the Hustler received damage when staff attempted to move the bomber with its main landing wheels locked, fracturing the nose gear.
Sadly, the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum itself had to close its doors in 2015, its exhibits either having to find new homes elsewhere or face the scrapper’s torch, a fate which some of the less-loved transport types did indeed suffer. The B-58 is a massive aircraft, so not an easy airframe to move economically, but given the type’s rarity and popularity ‘666 was always likely to find organizations both willing and able to foot the expenses of transferring the sleek bomber to their facility. This is how Castle Air Museum came to acquire 55-0666 on loan for display at their home in Atwater, California. They shipped the Hustler to Atwater by road during August, 2017.
Behind a chainlink fence, the airframe is undergoing remedial work at present on external static display. While the outdoors is never an ideal environment for any airframe, the arid nature of California’s climate should limit the risk of longterm corrosion problems. Here’s hoping that the airframe also receives a little TLC to regain her regal good looks before too much longer.
Adam Estes is a university student with a passion for aviation history. He is a volunteer for the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California, and has kept tabs on numerous aircraft and museums around the world. His goal is to become a museum curator while continuing to write articles and books on aviation history.