The Convair B-58 Hustler was the first operational supersonic jet bomber, and the first capable of Mach 2 flight. The aircraft was developed for the United States Air Force for service in the Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the 1960s. Originally intended to fly at high altitudes and speeds to avoid Soviet fighters, the introduction of highly accurate Soviet surface-to-air missiles forced the B-58 into a low-level penetration role that severely limited its range and strategic value. This led to a brief operational career between 1960 and 1969. Its specialized role was succeeded by other American supersonic bombers, such as the FB-111A and the later B-1B Lancer.
The B-58 received a great deal of notoriety due to its sonic boom, which was often heard by the public as it passed overhead in supersonic flight.
The B-58 crews were elite, hand-picked from other strategic bomber squadrons. Due to some characteristics of delta-winged aircraft, new pilots used the F-102 Delta Dagger as a conversion trainer, before moving to the TB-58A trainer. The B-58 was difficult to fly and its three-man crews were constantly busy, but its performance was exceptional. A lightly loaded Hustler would climb at nearly 46,000 ft/min (235 m/s).
It had a much smaller weapons load and more limited range than the B-52 Stratofortress. The B-58 had been extremely expensive to acquire (in 1959 it was reported that each B-58A cost more than its weight in gold). Through FY 1961, the total cost of the B-58 program was $3 billion. It was a complex aircraft that required considerable maintenance, much of which required specialized equipment and ground personnel. The B-58 cost three times as much to operate as the B-52. This included special maintenance issues with the nose landing gear that retracted in a complicated fashion to avoid the center payload. It had an unfavorably high accident rate: 26 B-58 aircraft were lost in accidents, 22.4% of total production. It was very difficult to safely recover from the loss of an engine at supersonic cruise due to differential thrust. SAC had been dubious about the type from the beginning, although its crews eventually became enthusiastic about the aircraft; its performance and design were appreciated, although it was never easy to fly.