20 July 1955: At Carswell Air Force Base, Fort Worth, Texas, the Convair NB-36H Nuclear Test Aircraft, serial number 51-5712, made its first flight.
In the late 1940s engineers began working on an aircraft that could be powered by a nuclear reactor. The reactor would heat air to provide jet thrust, rather than burning fuel and air to do so. A 60 megawatt reactor was envisioned.
The NB-36 was built to test the shielding requirements of an airborne nuclear reactor and to determine the effects of radiation on aircraft systems.
The Nuclear Test Aircraft was built from a Convair B-36H-20-CF Peacemaker strategic bomber, one of 61 that had been destroyed or damaged by a tornado that struck Carswell AFB in 1952. 51-5712 was so heavily damaged that the airframe was written off, but it was rebuilt with a completely new nose section with a shielded cockpit, and was otherwise very heavily modified by Convair.
A one-megawatt Aircraft Shield Test Reactor developed by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, weighing approximately 35,000 pounds (15,875 kilograms), was installed in the bomber’s aft bomb bay. Though the reactor was fully operational, it did not power the airplane.
As with other B-36s, a combination of six Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major R-4360-53 air-cooled, 28-cylinder radial engines, and four General Electric J47-GE-19 turbojet engines, powered the NB-36.
The modified bomber could reach a maximum speed of 420 miles per hours at 47,000 feet. It had a maximum gross weight of 357,500 pounds.
During the test program, the NB-36 made 47 flights with a total of 215 hours flight time.
Based on the test results, the entire project was cancelled, and 51-5712 was scrapped at Fort Worth in 1958.
3 June 1961: At the Paris Air Show, Aéroport de Paris – Le Bourget, Paris, France, the Blériot, Harmon and Mackay Trophy-winning Convair B-58A-10-CF Hustler, 58-2451, The Firefly, crashed, killing the aircrew, Major Elmer E. Murphy, Major Eugene Moses, and First Lieutenant David F. Dickerson. The B-58 was totally destroyed.
Only days earlier, The Firefly—with a different aircrew—had set a new speed record for its flight from New York to Paris.
On leaving Le Bourget for the return trip to the United States, Major Murphy engaged in low-altitude aerobatics. There are reports that while performing a slow roll, the bomber entered a cloud bank. The pilot lost visual reference, but the roll caused the attitude indicator to exceed its limits. Disoriented and without instrument flight capability, the B-58 crashed.
26 May 1961: The Firefly, the Blériot Trophy-winning Convair B-58A-10-CF Hustler, serial number 59-2451, assigned to the 43rd Bombardment Wing, Carswell Air Force Base, Fort Worth, Texas, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a Recognized Course by flying from Washington, D.C. to Paris in 3 hours, 39 minutes, 49 seconds, for an average speed of 1,687.69 kilometers per hour (1,048.68 miles per hour).¹
During the same flight, the B-58 flew the New York to Paris segment in 3 hours, 14 minutes, 44.53 seconds, at an average speed of 1,753.16 kilometers per hour (1,089.36 miles per hour).
The aircrew, Major William R. Payne, Aircraft Commander, Captain William L. Polhemus, Navigator, and Captain Raymond R. Wagener, Defensive Systems Officer, won the Harmon and Mackay Trophies for this flight.
On 3 June 1961, while enroute home, The Firefly crashed only 5 miles from Paris, killing the Blériot Trophy-winning aircrew, Major Elmer E. Murphy, Major Eugene Moses, and First Lieutenant David F. Dickerson. The B-58 was totally destroyed.
The B-58A Hustler was a high-altitude Mach 2 strategic bomber which served with the United States Air Force from 1960 to 1970. It was crewed by a pilot, navigator/bombardier and a defensive systems operator, each located in individual cockpits. The aircraft had a delta-winged configuration similar to the Convair F-102A Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart supersonic interceptors. The fuselage incorporates the “Area Rule” which resulted in a “wasp waist” or “Coke bottle” shape for a significant reduction in aerodynamic drag. The airplane’s only control surfaces are two “elevons” and a rudder. There are no flaps.
The “Hustler” was 96.8 feet (29.5 meters) long, with a wing span of 56.8 feet (17.3 meters) and an overall height of 31.4 feet (9.6 meters). The wings’ leading edges were swept back at a 60° angle. The wings had a 3°0′ angle of incidence, 2°14′ dihedral, and a total area of 1,542.5 square feet (143.3 square meters).
The B-58A had an empty weight of 51,061 pounds (23,161 kilograms). Its Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW) was 90,000 pounds (40,823 kilograms), but once airborne, it could take on additional fuel from a tanker, raising the bomber’s maximum weight to 125,147 pounds (56,766 kilograms).
The B-58A was powered by four General Electric J79-GE-5 afterburning turbojet engines, suspended under the wings from pylons. These were single-shaft axial-flow engines with a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The J79-GE-5 had a continuous power rating of 9,700 pounds of thrust (43.15 kilonewtons), Military Power, 10,000 pounds of thrust (44.49 kilonewtons), and Maximum Power, 15,600 pounds (69.39 kilonewtons) with afterburner. (All ratings at 7,460 r.p.m.) The engine was 16 feet, 10.2 inches (5.131 meters) long and 3 feet, 2.0 inches (0.889 meters) in diameter. It weighed 3,570 pounds (1,619 kilograms).
The bomber had a cruise speed of 626 miles per hour (1,007 kilometers per hour) from 30,000 to 50,000 feet (9,144–15,240 meters), and a maximum speed of 1,319 miles per hour (2,124 kilometers per hour) at 56,100 feet (17,099 meters). The B-58’s service ceiling was 67,200 feet (20,483 meters).
Jet fuel (JP-4) was carried in three tanks inside the airplane’s fuselage, and two tanks in a streamlined drop tank. The total capacity of the five tanks was 15,369 gallons (58,178 liters). Its combat radius was 2,589 miles (4,167 kilometers) and the maximum ferry range was 6,483 miles (10,434 kilometers).
The B-58 weapons load was a combination of W-39, B43 or B61 nuclear bombs. The W-39 was carried in the centerline pod. (A two-component mission pod was also available.) The W-39 was the same warhead used on the PGM-11 Redstone intermediate range ballistic missile and the SM-62 Snark intercontinental cruise missile. It was a two-stage radiation-implosion thermonuclear warhead with an explosive yield of 3.8 megatons. The warhead weighed 6,230 pounds (2,826 kilograms). The B-43 and B-61 bombs were carried on four hardpoints under the fuselage.
There was a defensive General Electric M61 Vulcan 20 mm rotary cannon mounted in the bomber’s tail, with a maximum 1,040 rounds of ammunition. The gun was remotely-controlled by the Defensive Systems Officer.
The Convair Division of General Dynamics built 116 B-58s at Forth Worth, Texas. The first XB-58 flew on 11 November 1956. Production aircraft entered service with the Strategic Air Command in 1960 and were retired in 1970. Only eight aircraft remain in existence.
15 May 1963: At 8:04:13.106 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, Mercury-Atlas 9, carrying NASA astronaut, L. Gordon Cooper aboard Faith 7, lifted off from Launch Complex 14, Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Florida. Cooper reported, “The liftoff was smooth, but very definite, the acceleration was very pleasant. The booster had a very good feel to it and it felt like we were real on the go, there.” The maximum acceleration experienced during launch was 7.6 gs.
Faith 7 separated from the Atlas booster at T+00:05:05.5.3 and entered low Earth orbit with an apogee of 165.9 statute miles (267.0 kilometers) and perigee of 100.3 statute miles (161.4 kilometers). The orbital period was 88 minutes, 45 seconds. The spacecraft’s velocity was 25,714.0 feet per second (7,837.6 meters per second), or 17,532.3 miles per hour (28,215.5 kilometers per hour).
MA-9 was the final flight of Project Mercury. Gordon Cooper flew 22.5 orbits. Due to electrical system problems that began on the 21st orbit, he had to fly a manual reentry which resulted in the most accurate landing of the Mercury program.
The spacecraft’s three retrorockets fired 5 second intervals beginning at T+33:59:30. 34 hours, 19 minutes, 49 seconds after lift off, Faith 7 “splashed down” approximately 70 miles (112.7 kilometers) southeast of Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean, just 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) from the primary recovery ship, the United States Navy Ticonderoga-class aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge (CV-33).
The Mercury spacecraft, which Cooper named Faith 7, was built by McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, St. Louis, Missouri, which would also build the follow-on, two-place Gemini spacecraft. It was the 20th and final Mercury capsule to be built, and was one of four which were modified to support a day-long mission. Some items considered unnecessary were deleted and extra oxygen and battery capacity was added.
Designed to carry one pilot, the Mercury space craft could be controlled in pitch, roll and yaw by thrusters. The space capsule was truncated cone with sides angled 20° from the longitudinal axis. It was 6 feet, 10 inches (2.083 meters) long and had a maximum diameter of 6 feet, 2.50 inches (1.892 meters). The total height of the spacecraft, from the tip of the aero spike to the booster adapter, was 26 feet, 1.26 inches (7.957 meters). Faith 7 weighed 4,330.82 pounds (1,964.43 kilograms) at liftoff.
During flight outside the atmosphere, the Mercury spacecraft could be controlled in its pitch, roll and yaw axes by hydrogen peroxide-fueled reaction control thrusters. Both manual and automatic attitude control were available. It could not accelerate or decelerate (except for reentry) so it could not change its orbit.
The spacecraft cabin was pressurized to 5.5 psi with 100% oxygen. Gordon Cooper wore a modified B.F. Goodrich Mark IV full-pressure suit and flight helmet for protection in the event that cabin pressure was lost. Cooper’s suit varied considerably from those worn by previous Mercury astronauts.
The rocket, a “1-½ stage” liquid-fueled Atlas LV-3B, number 109-D, was built by the Convair Division of General Dynamics at San Diego, California. It was developed from a U.S. Air Force SM-65 Atlas D intercontinental ballistic missile, modified for use as a “man-rated” orbital launch vehicle.
The LV-3B was 65 feet (19.812 meters) long from the base to the Mercury adapter section, and the tank section is 10 feet (3.038 meters) in diameter. The complete Mercury-Atlas orbital launch vehicle is 93 feet (28.436 meters) tall, including the escape tower. When ready for launch it weighed approximately 260,000 pounds (117,934 kilograms).
The Atlas’ three engines were built by the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation, Inc., at Canoga Park, California. Two Rocketdyne LR89-NA-5 engines and one LR105-NA-5 produced 341,140 pounds (1,517.466 kilonewtons) of thrust. The rocket was fueled by a highly-refined kerosene, RP-1, with liquid oxygen as the oxidizer.
Faith 7 is displayed at the Space Center Houston, the visitor center for the Johnson Space Flight Center, Houston, Texas.
In 1930, aviation pioneer Louis Charles Joseph Blériot established the Blériot Trophy, to be awarded to an aviator who demonstrated flight at a speed of 2,000 kilometers per hour (1,242.742 miles per hour) for 30 minutes. The technology to accomplish this was three decades in the future.
On 10 May 1961, a U.S. Air Force/Convair B-58A-10-CF Hustler, serial number 59-2451, The Firefly, did just that. Flown by a crew consisting of Aircraft Commander, Major Elmer E. Murphy, Navigator, Major Eugene Moses, and Defensive Systems Officer, First Lieutenant David F. Dickerson, the Mach 2+ Strategic Air Command bomber flew 669.4 miles (1,077.3 kilometers) in 30 minutes, 43 seconds. Their average speed was 1,302.07 miles per hour (2,095 kilometers per hour).
The black and white marble trophy was presented to the B-58 crew by Alice Védères Blériot, widow of Louis Blériot, at Paris, France, 27 May 1961. It is on permanent display at the McDermott Library of the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The Convair B-58 Hustler was a high-altitude, Mach 2+ strategic bomber which served with the United States Air Force from 1960 to 1970. It was crewed by a pilot, navigator/bombardier and a defensive systems operator located in individual cockpits. The aircraft has a delta-winged configuration similar to Convair’s F-102A Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart supersonic interceptors.
The Hustler is 96 feet, 10 inches (29.515 meters) long, with a wing span of 56 feet, 10 inches (17.323 meters) and overall height of 31 feet 5 inches (9.576 meters). The wings’ leading edge is swept back at a 60° angle and the fuselage incorporates the “area rule” which resulted in a “wasp waist” or “Coke bottle” shape for a significant reduction in aerodynamic drag. The airplane’s only control surfaces are two “elevons” and a rudder. There are no flaps.
The B-58’s delta wing has a total area of 1,542.5 square feet (143.3 square meters) and the leading edges are swept back at a 60° angle. The wing has an angle of incidence of 3° and 2° 14′ dihedral (outboard of Sta. 56.5).
The B-58A had an empty weight of 51,061 pounds (23161 kilograms), or 53,581 pounds (24,304 kilograms) with the MB-1 pod. The maximum takeoff weight was 158,000 pounds (71,668 kilograms).
The B-58A was powered by four General Electric J79-GE-5 axial-flow afterburning turbojet engines, suspended under the wings from pylons. This was a single-shaft engine with a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. It had a Normal Power rating of 9,700 pounds of thrust (43.148 kilonewtons). The Military Power rating was 10,000 pounds (44.482 kilonewtons), and it produced a maximum 15,600 pounds (69.392 kilonewtons) at 7,460 r.p.m., with afterburner. The J79-GE-5 was 16 feet, 10.0 inches (5.131 meters) long and 2 feet, 11.2 inches (0.894 meters) in diameter. It weighed 3,570 pounds (1,619 kilograms).
The bomber had a cruise speed of 544 knots (626 miles per hour/1,007 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 1,147 knots (1,320 miles per hour/2,124 kilometers per hour) at 67,000 feet (20,422 meters). The B-58A had a combat radius of 4,225 nautical miles (4,862 statute miles/7,825 kilometers). Its maximum ferry range was 8,416 nautical miles (9,685 statute miles/15,586 kilometers).
The B-58 weapons load was a combination of Mark 39, B43 or B61 thermonuclear bombs. The weapons could be carried in a jettisonable centerline pod, which also carried fuel. The four of the smaller bombs could be carried on underwing hardpoints. There was a General Electric M61 20 mm rotary cannon mounted in the tail, with 1,200 rounds of ammunition, and controlled by the Defensive Systems Officer.
On 26 May 1961, The Firefly, flown by a different aircrew, set a speed record by flying New York to Paris, while enroute to the Paris Air Show, a distance of 3,626.46 miles in 3 hours, 19 minutes, 58 seconds, for an average of 1,089.36 mph.
Convair built 116 B-58s between 1956 and 1961. They were retired by 1970.
On 3 June 1961, the Blériot Trophy-winning crew of Murphy, Moses and Dickerson departed Le Bourget Airport aboard 59-2451 for the return trip to America. The B-58 crashed five miles from the airport. All three men were killed and the aircraft totally destroyed.
General Dynamics contributed an extensive collection of photographs of the speed run to the San Diego Air and Space Museum, which holds them in its Archives.
A 1961 Air Force film covering the event and the presentation of the Blériot Trophy can be seen on You Tube at https://youtu.be/0D_n8YRodII