Below are some questions and answers, answered by Lt. Col. Strank, pilot (aircraft commander) in the 305th at Bunker Hill AFB starting in 1962. Others also are being interviewed and their comments will also be printed.
QUESTION: How did you get into the B-58 program?
LT COL STRANK: Entrance into the B-58 program was strictly voluntary and prerequisites were rather strict. If I remember correctly some of the requirements were based on total flying time, jet time, multi-engine jet time, instructor time and your Wing commander's recommendation. I had flown about 6 different aircraft prior to entering the B-58 program, the main 2 were the B-29 (600 hours) and B-47 (over 2200 hours). We started our training at Perrin AFB where we had about 5 to 10 hours of instrument refresher flight; that included hooded instrument take-offs (in the T-33) which I hadn't done since my early days in pilot training. We then checked out in the F-102 for familiarization with delta wing characteristics. We normally had 2 flights in the TF-102 and then we were solo, with your instructor in a chase aircraft. Can't remember how many 1 or 2 hour flights but it was probably 9 or 10 before we "graduated" and moved on to Carswell AFB for B-58 training.
At Carswell we teamed up with our DSO (Defensive Systems Operator) while our assigned navigator was training at Mather AFB, CA. We had about 6 weeks of class room work (full 8 hour days) and simulator training (5-6 flights of about 3 to 4 hours duration) before we ever climbed into the airplane. I had 2 instructor flights and 1 instrument training flight, then it was solo time in the B-58. By this time, our navigator was done in CA and got to Carswell to join us on our solo flight (his first flight). It was quite a thrill, especially after the strict, demanding and rigorous training we endured.
QUESTION: When did you enter the program?
LT COL STRANK: This all took place in 1962. I graduated in August 1962 and was assigned to Carswell. A classmate was assigned to Bunker Hill but wanted to stay in Texas so we swapped assignments; SAC really didn't care 'cause it was just interested in crews.
QUESTION: What else can you tell us about the training?
LT COL STRANK: In your questions, you've asked about training which I will explain, but in SAC (where I spent all of my career) we constantly trained. It seemed we did nothing but training and getting evaluated -- but it did make for a very professional Command.
QUESTION: How did the B-58 fly (handle)?
LT COL STRANK: As mentioned earlier, the delta wing made the aircraft handle differently than straight wing aircraft but the B-58 was firm, responsive and was a joy to fly--although you were "flying" it even when you taxied. You had to pay attention to detail at all times and you couldn't really relax from the time you climbed on board until you parked and cut the engines. In flight, as with any aircraft, you had to think ahead of the aircraft at all times and this was especially true when you were climbing at Mach .90 and cruising at Mach .91. You couldn't pull over and think of what to do at that speed. Someone asked me about Mach 2 and how fast that was. I explained there was no sensation of speed and only your instruments told you how fast you were going. But Mach 2 would be almost 8 football fields in 1 second. That is rapid. I know there are aircraft today that go faster but we were the best and the fastest in our day and some of the records we set will never be broken.
QUESTION: What would you like to share about alert duty?
LT COL STRANK: I'll talk a little about bomber alert duty. We began "pulling" alert, I believe, in 1957 (bomber alert). It was so new that we didn't have the alert barracks (they weren't built at that time) so we pulled alert in a modified airman's barracks. We started on alert for 1 day but it rapidly progressed to 2 days, then 3 days and soon we were on alert 4 days, Monday through Thursday or Friday through Sunday. By the time I got to Bunker Hill, we pulled alert one week, off one week and back on alert the next week. While on alert we mission planned for a flight on our off week. So it meant pulling alert every other week and flying twice a month which was really not enough flying time for an aircraft like the B-58.
The alert barracks were like a big hotel with bed rooms and bathing facilities down stairs. Upstairs it had a briefing room for all crews (tanker and bomber), 2 television rooms, 4-5 mission planning/study rooms, a library, 2 recreation rooms (pool tables, ping pong, etc.), a fully staffed dining facility, a command post where the Charge of Quarters kept the status boards on all crews, etc. Whenever a crew left the facility to go to the BX, Commissary, simulator, one of the clubs, church, etc. they had to sign out so that the CQ knew their location. The crews were allowed some freedom but were restricted to only the area that were so many minutes from the alert barracks; this was to conform to the desired response time to answer an alert. We could even play golf but had to have someone follow us around the course in an alert vehicle so that we could respond to an alert in the required time. Headquarters SAC knew the strain and stress put on the crews and really tried to make alert duty as comfortable and pleasant as possible. After our week on alert we would have Saturday and Sunday off (this time was inviolable) and usually fly on Monday or Tuesday. What this all amounted to was you were on alert or flying or home.
QUESTION: How was crew structured?
LT COL STRANK: The crew consisted of a pilot, navigator and defensive systems operator and these positions were not interchangeable. Actually the Navigator did most of the work, both in mission planning and in the air with the DSO working with him and the Pilot. I hesitate to say this, but the pilot was just along for the ride, he was just a supervisor. All I did was take-off, air refuel, monitor the gauges and aircraft position and land. The take-off was quite rapid (it took about 20-25 seconds from start of roll to rotation). We took off at 200 knots, accelerated to 425 knots until reaching .90 Mach and climbed at that Mach number. Leveled off and cruised at .91 Mach. We normally had an air refueling on every flight and it was fun and quite easy, for the most part, due to the responsiveness of the aircraft. In fact, if I got back early and had time to kill (if the mission was scheduled for 6 hours -- normal time for a mission -- we had to fly at least the 6 hours), I would check with the command post to see if there was a tanker in the area. If so we'd arrange a rendezvous and I would practice air refueling.
QUESTION: How much time/miles did you have in the B-58?
LT COL STRANK: I had a bit over 900 hours in the B-58. Some at .91 Mach and some at Mach 2, so its difficult to convert the time into miles.
QUESTION: Did you fly only certain planes, any planes and if it wasn't always the same plane, did they all "fly" (handle) the same?
LT COL STRANK: We weren't assigned any particular aircraft but flew the one assigned for the mission at hand. Most of the aircraft handled the same but the navigators knew which ones had the better navigation equipment. That was the only big problem with the B-58. We didn't have "solid state" equipment and there was hardly a mission where some of the "black boxes" weren't melted during flight due to the heat generated by the equipment. I believe they went to "solid state" in the later years but that was after I left the program for a staff position. Also, though I never flew a return component (a B-58 without the pod), some that did told me it tended to wander in the lateral axis -- although it was still a solid aircraft and very responsive. The wandering was more of a pain than anything else.
QUESTION: What is the fastest you ever went?
LT COL STRANK: I got involved with something rather unimportant while accelerating to Mach 2 and wasn't paying attention, a cardinal rule and sometimes a fatal sin, when my navigator let out a yell -- I was at.....(Lt. Col. Strank prefers not to say how fast it was...)
QUESTION: Were you combat ready at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis?
LT COL STRANK: My crew was new at Grissom (Bunker Hill) and not declared combat ready when the Cuban crisis occurred so our only contribution was to fly to Kelly AFB and pick up a B-58, there for modifications, and fly it back to Grissom so that it could be uploaded with weapons and placed on alert. If my memory is correct, I believe every B-58 at Grissom was on alert during that time. Weapons were on all alert aircraft but, to my knowledge, none ever flew with a nuclear weapon on board.
QUESTION: What about maintaining the B-58?
LT COL STRANK: SAC had the best maintenance crews in the Air Force and I believe that, in part, was due to the training and testing/evaluation they went through. Their program was much the same as the air crews with the constant training, testing, evaluation, etc. I always hated being constantly "under the gun" but looking back through the years that is what made SAC the deterrent power it was and kept the "Russian Bear" from the door. In fact, in all my hours in the B/TB-58, and discounting the navigation problems mentioned earlier, I only ever had to shut down one engine in the 900+ hours of flight. In the 2200 plus hours I had in the B-47, I only shut down one engine. I believe that says it all for maintenance.
QUESTION: When did you use the afterburners?
LT COL STRANK: We used the after burners for take-off, accelerating to Mach 2 and, sometimes for air refueling if were going to a heavy weight; then we only set 2 in Minimum AB and flew with the other 2.
QUESTION: What was the same/different about the trainer (TB-58A)?
LT COL STRANK: The TB's were the same as the B's, except the TB's had ejection seats rather than capsules and the second station (navigator) was converted into a pilot's station. We used the TB's for student upgrading and instrument training and evaluation so they got a lot of time on the airframe; probably a lot more than the B's.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about landing?
LT COL STRANK: Landing the plane was a bit different than other aircraft. We flew the traffic pattern at 250 kts., turned based and held 220 kts., turned final and reduced airspeed to 200 kts. Held this speed until crossing the runway threshold and touched down about 180 kts. There was really no "round out" on landing. In fact, I normally put my pitot tube on the spot where I wanted to touch down and held that to landing. On landing you lowered the nose to level flight (didn't touch the nose gear to the runway), deployed the brake chute and when you felt it, you rotated the nose to about 14 degrees for aerodynamic braking; this, along with the brake chute, slowed the plane pretty well. Prior to 100 kts, you lowered the nose to the runway and proceeded to brake the aircraft. You could stop the aircraft without the brake chute but it would take the entire runway (about 12,000 feet) and almost always required a brake change. It was probably the fastest landing aircraft in the AF inventory and it was partly because of the delta wings and the lack of wing flaps.
QUESTION: 20% of them crashed, any thoughts why?
LT COL STRANK: I hesitate to say this but most aircraft accidents are the result of pilot error. It's complacency, inattention, exceeding your capabilities or that of the aircraft, "get homitis" or any number of things. I was probably guilty of all those at one time or another but was fortunate enough to get away with it.
QUESTION: The 58 at Wright Patterson Air Museum "shines", did all the planes "shine" like that when you flew them?
LT COL STRANK: Only the display planes, whatever type, are bright and shiny. that's for the public because the "working planes", although they were kept pretty clean, were just that, working planes.
QUESTION: How was it to be the "top guns" of the day?
LT COL STRANK: It was said about us in the B-58 program that we were prima donnas and that was somewhat true. We played hard, worked hard and lost more than a few good men but we were the best. I know this borders on egotism but I am stating the facts as I believe them to be. The 58 was really an experimental aircraft that was declared combat ready before it's time but I'm glad it was. It was "ahead of its time" and many of the innovations in the B-58 are still in use in many of the aircraft today. Some of these were: 1): Astro tracker - would automatically track a selected star and feed the data into the nav. equipment. 2). voice warning system -- if a malfunction occurred a light would go on telling you what it was and a girl's voice would also begin to tell you what it was. 3). in-flight printer tape -- this would start at the beginning of flight and record latitude, longitude, airspeed, altitude, etc. so that an evaluator could completely follow your flight after you landed. I believe this to be an early cockpit recorder. 4). automatic fuel and c.g. control -- you would dial in whatever center of gravity you desired, switch to Automatic and the fuel would continually be moved to maintain that desired CG. 5). auto pilot --- most aircraft had one but this you could engage in any mode of flight and it would maintain altitude, speed, mach, or any combination of these. Also the Nav. could fly the aircraft in elevation as well as azimuth. There were many more but I just can't remember them all.
This gives a rough idea of what an advanced flying machine we had but I doubt if it would be any any use today. It was built to be used for a one time supersonic dash to target with a nuclear weapon and wasn't built to carry "iron bombs". I doubt if it would be feasible or cost effective to convert it and I doubt if it could be done.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about ejection seats/capsules?
LT COL STRANK: The airplane first came out with ejection seats but they proved too dangerous to use at high mach numbers so the escape capsule was developed; and it had to be small enough to fit in the aircraft without changing the aircraft itself. The TB's retained the seats but all bombers were eventually equipped with capsules. It was "shirt sleeve" flying because the parachute was contained in the capsule so that's one thing we didn't have to strap on. The capsule wasn't too uncomfortable but not being able to walk around or stretch for 6 or 7 hours got to be tiring. Also, the other 2 stations only had a small window on each side of their position and it was about 2 to 3 foot above them so they couldn't see out very well. When they were in the capsule they were even more restricted and I know some of them got a bit claustrophobic. Since we were in 3 separate stations (or cockpits) that only contact we had was through intercom; there was no way we had any physical contact with each other for the duration of the flight.
QUESTION: How were you paid?
LT COL STRANK: All AF officers were paid according to rank. The only difference was flying officers received flight pay and that was commensurate with their rank; regardless what they flew.
QUESTION: Any problems with fuel shifting?
LT COL STRANK: The only problems with fuel shifting was at supersonic speeds the fuel would, sometimes, tend to load up on one wing or the other. This was taken care of by a 'wing heaviness" switch which would compensate by automatically trimming the aircraft for level flight.
QUESTION: Ever have any close calls?
LT COL STRANK: As for close calls, if you drive a car for a number of years, sooner or later you're sure to have some kind of malfunction. So I never talk about my "flat tires". I believe that "war stories" are 90% bull and 10% exaggeration.
QUESTION: Would you do it again?
LT COL STRANK: Everything that I have said here is an "old man's" memory of the way it was. There may be some errors, but, for the most part, I believe it's pretty accurate. You asked if I'd do it again, if I were capable I'd do it "yesterday" cause it was a privilege and honor to have been selected to fly the best flying and best looking airplane, in my estimation, the AF has ever had in it's inventory.
Special thanks to Lt. Col Strank (retired) for sharing this invaluable information.
Copyright 2001, B-58hustler.com, no part can be used without the express written permission of B-58Hustler.com or the person answering the questions.