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Historic bomber returns to air base

Ed Galucki Past and present met at the Friday dedication of the Convair B-58 Hustler now on display at Little Rock Air Force Base Heritage Park. Some of those who flew and maintained the supersonic bomber while it operated out of the base met with maintenance volunteers who restored the aircraft for inclusion at the park.Buy Photo
Ed Galucki Past and present met at the Friday dedication of the Convair B-58 Hustler now on display at Little Rock Air Force Base Heritage Park. Some of those who flew and maintained the supersonic bomber while it operated out of the base met with maintenance volunteers who restored the aircraft for inclusion at the park.
photo by Jim Hellinger, copyright 1979,  used by permission The barely discernible serial number “0668” on the nose gear door is the only hint that this is the sleek, gleaming B-58 Hustler, tail number 55-0668, now on display at Little Rock Air Force Base Heritage Park. This 1979 picture shows the sad state to which the bomber had deteriorated after being decommissioned in the 1960s. Rescued from salvage, the bomber was restored and displayed by the Lone Star Aviation Museum at Galveston only to be battered beyond recovery by Hurricane Ike. It was brought to Little Rock Air Force Base where volunteers from the 19 Airlift Wing Maintenance Group worked to bring the historic aircraft to its present condition.
photo by Jim Hellinger, copyright 1979, used by permission The barely discernible serial number “0668” on the nose gear door is the only hint that this is the sleek, gleaming B-58 Hustler, tail number 55-0668, now on display at Little Rock Air Force Base Heritage Park. This 1979 picture shows the sad state to which the bomber had deteriorated after being decommissioned in the 1960s. Rescued from salvage, the bomber was restored and displayed by the Lone Star Aviation Museum at Galveston only to be battered beyond recovery by Hurricane Ike. It was brought to Little Rock Air Force Base where volunteers from the 19 Airlift Wing Maintenance Group worked to bring the historic aircraft to its present condition.

After waiting nearly 25 years, Little Rock Air Force Base has added a Convair B-58 Hustler to the historical aircraft on display at the base, becoming the only non-museum, active-duty base to own such an aircraft. Although some of the supersonic bombers were set aside for display, tail number 55-0668, has been twice rescued from being “melted into kitchen utensils” by restoration efforts.

Lt Col (Ret.) Raymond McLaughlin of North Little Rock, among those who piloted B-58 55-0668 while it was at Little Rock AFB; B-58 Hustler Association secretary Master Sgt. (Ret) Richard Bolcer; and 19th Equipment Maintenance Squadron members Tech. Sgt. Phillip Chappell and Airman 1st Class Brandon Thelen christened the newly restored aircraft in a dedication ceremony Friday at the base’s Heritage Park.

“Today we dedicate the return of a great plane to its home, Little Rock Heritage Park,” McLauglin said in remarks.

Speakers for the ceremony were McLaughlin and 19th Airlift Wing vice commander Col. Tom Crimmins. Senior Airman Kristen Anderson rendered the National Anthem for the ceremony; invocation was by chaplain Lt. Col. Francis Lowe.

Crimmins opened his remarks with the just-released information that a KC-135 had crashed in the Republic of Kurdistan while conducting operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. “This is a constant reminder that what we do, guarding our nation’s freedom … is a dangerous business that exacts its cost in blood,” he said. Crimmins called for a moment of silence for those in the recent crash, and those in two other crashes within the past month.

Crimmins recognized the volunteers who worked to restore 55-0668, which had come to the base badly damaged.

McLauglin told of piloting “the free world’s first supersonic bomber … the only aircraft ever made that cost its own weight in gold.” Impressive even though gold was “pegged” at $35 an ounce at the time, he said.

Although the B-58 was ahead of its time, it came to the Air Force too late to be effectively used in its designed mission of high-altitude, high-speed penetration, McLauglin said. Advances in Soviet air defenses forced the aircraft into low-altitude operations for protection; a problem because the B-58 had no terrain avoidance radar, “Other than the one pilot’s eyeballs,” he remarked.

McLaughlin said the B-58 had a reputation for being difficult fly and accident-prone, a reputation he felt the plane did not deserve. “It was the easiest to fly, and the most fun to fly airplane that I have flown,” although it did have unique characteristics, he said.

Control of the B-58 was fighter-style with a stick rather than a column, and would “hold its trim perfectly,” McLaughlin said.

“The bomb nav system of the B-58 was a dream … but when it did not function properly, it wasn’t a dream, it was more of a nightmare,” McLauglin said. This led to the popular description of the B-58 as, “Four engines and a stop watch,” he said.

The bomb navigation system worked only one time for his crew, and that was on their first flight, McLauglin said. “It never worked perfectly again,” he said.

“Amazingly accurate navigation and bombing,” became a cooperative work between the navigator/defensive systems operator, using a map and landmarks, and the pilot, who would use a stopwatch, McLauglin recounted. Their subsequent bomb runs missed by an average of 300 feet, he said.

But there was no question of the aircraft’s performance, McLaughlin said. Tasked with getting photos of damage after the severe 1962 earthquake in Alaska, a B-58 delivered the pictures at Washington, D.C., in less than 14 hours of the crew being notified, he said.

McLaughlin noted that 55-0668 was originally a “YB-58,” built before the aircraft went into full production. Although 0668 had a time when it was known as a “hangar queen,” it was an overall “workhorse,” at one time serving as one of two B-58s available to keep all the pilots “current” in landings, he said.

Stresses of the low-altitude mission forced upon the B-58, considerations during negotiation of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, and high operating costs - twice that of a B-52 - “Led to the early death of the B-58 … By early 1970, all the B-58s had been flown to the boneyard,” he said.

Little Rock’s B-58 was “Saved from being melted down and turned into kitchen utensils” when it was added to the Lone Star Aviation Museum, McLaughlin said.

According to information from the base historian, efforts to bring a B-58 to Heritage Park began in 1989.

Aircraft 55-0668 came to Little Rock AFB in February 2011, by way of Lone Star Aviation Museum at Galveston, Texas. The aircraft had been restored and displayed at the museum in the mid-1980s, but in 2008 Hurricane Ike battered the aircraft beyond repair by the museum.

The base accepted the B-58, and 55-0668 arrived at Little Rock, wingless and on a trailer, in Feb. 2011.

“The 19th Equipment Maintenance Squadron put countless hours restoring the aircraft, working days and nights,” the base information notes.

McLaughlin retired in 1974 with 24 years of service including being a B-36 navigator and B-47, F-102, B-58 and B-52 pilot. He also served as current operations officer for B-58s, served a tour in Korea as reconnaissance staff officer and air liaison officer, and commanded a Strategic Detachment of B-52’s and KC-135’s.

After retiring, McLauglin was director of administrative services in the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration for 12 years; and was executive director of a supplemental retirement program in Ohio for seven years.

Heritage Park displays many of the aircraft that have operated at Little Rock Air Force Base.

Since opening in 1956, Little Rock A.F.B. has hosted numerous aircraft, even spacecraft, including the B-47 Stratojet in both reconnaissance and bomber configurations; KC-97 Stratotanker, Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, RB-57 Canberra, RF-101 Voodoo, and KC-135 Stratotanker.

The B-58s came to Little Rock A.F.B. in 1964 with the reassignment of the 43rd Bombardment Wing from Carswell A.F.B. In 1962, 55-0668 gained note as the only B-58 to enter enemy airspace when it made a reconnaissance flight over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

From 1956 when the first B-47 was put on alert, until late 1987 when the last Titan II stood down, Little Rock AFB had an active role in the “Cold War.”

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