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Story from the book “Flight Testing at Edwards”

YB-58 PHASE 2 TESTS

by Johnny Armstrong

The Phase II designation in the Air Force’s test syllabus in 1957 was the first Air Force evaluation of an aircraft following the “contractor only” Phase I test program. The first two four-engine supersonic Convair B-58 bombers were given the “Y” designation, indicating the aircraft were considered prototype aircraft (a notch above being experimental). It was a sleek and exciting aircraft for its time with four afterburning GE J-79 engines mounted on pods on the highly swept delta wing. The aircraft was designed to have a Mach 2 dash capability to and from the target area dropping the large externally mounted bomb pod which also doubled as a fuel tank. To optimize engine performance above Mach 1 the engine installation included moving nose cones in the inlets to position the shock wave for optimum air flow to the engine.
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Here I was a “still green behind the ears”, 24 year old 2nd Lt at the Convair plant in Fort Worth, Texas, after having put on my gold bars only a year prior and reporting to Edwards. I was an apprentice flight test engineer assisting Ev Dunlap along with the pilot, Capt Fitz Fulton, and crew chief, M/Sgt Cliff Garringer.

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2Lt. Armstrong, Capt Fitz Fulton (just made Major), M/Sgt Garringer, Everet Dunlap

We were here to conduct the Phase II performance and stability and control tests on YB-58A S/N 55-661, the second aircraft off the production line sporting a bright red painted nose, wing tip, and vertical tail with accenting white diamond streaks. It looked fast just sitting on the ramp. The flight test engineer’s station was the second of three tandem flight stations. It was equipped only with an eight day clock, airspeed indicator, an altimeter and the data management system panel. It also had 60 removable type fuses right on the forward panel. Only a small peep hole measuring about 5″ by 10″ on each side of the hatch gave the engineer a very limited view to the outside world.

During the early testing days of the B-58, the General Electric J79-7 engine was new and lacked reliability. It consumed a lot of oil and was subject to excessive vibrations. One of my duties was to routinely monitor the measured vibration level of each engine. It seemed to be routine to end up shutting down an engine during flight for one of the above two reasons. The additional problem that 661 had was Jinx Armstrong. Seems like every time we were scheduled to conduct tests at Mach 2 something happened along the way and we terminated the flight before getting to the Mach 2 test point. The Convair crews began to refer to me as “The Jinx”. I sorely wanted to make it to Mach 2.

The morning of 25 February 1958 Fitz taxied 661 out to the north end of the Carswell AFB runway and I could barely see Lake Worth out the small window as he turned the aircraft facing south. Another noisy, pushed-back-in-the-seat, burner take off, a wide turn and we were headed outbound. Our acceleration toward Mach 2 was going good and we were almost there….then it happened. The aircraft started vibrating intensely accompanied by lots of metal rattling noise and I found myself being pushed to one side. About that time Fitz radioed over the intercom in a grunting voice, “Johnny get the data on”. I threw the data tape switch on and my next step was to clean up my station to get ready to leave it. I had a fold down table over my lap that I used for recording data. It had to be stowed before I could eject and believe me I started getting ready.

The outboard #4 engine had encountered what I now believe to be an unstart. In those days I did not know about such things. When the shock wave from the engine nose cone is not at the proper position the engine regurgitates the airflow back out the inlet producing a large amount of drag. Finally as the aircraft decelerated things quieted down and we were headed back to Carswell with the #4 engine shut down. It was now just another RTB with less than our full complement of thrusters. Then in a typical Fulton calm radio call he announced he was shutting down the #1 engine due to low oil.

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So now we were slowly descending through 25,000 feet on two engines. Soon Fitz radioed in an observation tone that we were passing a B-47 heading in our direction. Finally the flight ended routinely and once again Jinx got the wrath of the Convair team members. Several days later the Fort Worth Press came out with headlines in boldface on page 18, “B-58, TWO ENGINES OUT, PASSES B-47!”. The report stated; “A Convair B-58 with two engines out breezed past a cruising B-47 Stratojet last week, THE PRESS learned yesterday. The incident happened Tuesday near Oklahoma City. The B-58, being flown by an Air Force pilot, was “limping” along with only two of its four General Electric J-79 engines in operation. It was not clear whether the engines went out or were deliberately shut down in a test. At any rate, the Convair plane easily overtook and passed a B-47 Stratojet flying the same course. The B-58 pilot almost came unglued with excitement, THE PRESS was told.” Fitz, unglued….Ha! Never! Now to appreciate THE PRESS story you need to understand that Fort Worth folks were not too fond of Boeing and its flying machines ever since the Boeing B-52 won over the Convair YB-60.

Now it was 3 March 1958 and Jinx was airborne again in 661. This time he made it to Mach 2. After the flight the Convair crew made a big to-do over it presenting me with a two dollar bill with my picture pasted in the center and signed by all the crew associated with 661. Later at a dinner ceremony of the Mach 2 Club I received my Mach 2 pin and Mach 2 card #24 signed by B.A. Erickson who was Convair chief pilot at the time. Jinx may have been the first non-rated, Air Force officer to fly to Mach 2.

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THE ABOVE STORY IS ONE OF OVER 100 STORIES BY AND ABOUT FLIGHT TEST ENGINEERS AT EDWARDS AFB DOCUMENTED IN THE BOOK DESCRIBED HERE.

PROFITS FROM SALE OF THE BOOK GO TO
THE EDWARDS FLIGHT TEST HISTORICAL FOUNDATION.